HENRY DEEDES watches Starmer relish a PMQs battle over BrexitFebruary 22, 2023
Keir’s grin was as wide as a motorway, his nasal vibrato twanging with undisguised glee: HENRY DEEDES watches Starmer relish a PMQs battle over Brexit
What is the most tedious phrase in the English language? Tough one. Any ranking would need to have ‘Rail replacement bus’ somewhere near the top. So too ‘See it, say it, sorted’ or ‘Unexpected item in bagging area’.
Running them pretty close at the moment is ‘the Northern Ireland Protocol’ — which might sound like the title of a juicy Jack Higgins novel involving gun-toting Irish gangsters, but relates instead, as we know all too well, to the more mundane matters of EU law and pettifogging trade arrangements.
These days, any mention of the protocol is enough to make even the most hardened political anorak roll their eyes and long for a loaded revolver.
No wonder then, that dull old Sir Keir Starmer loves discussing it. This is his specialist subject, his favourite Desert Islands discs all recorded onto one long, dreary compilation album.
Which was a good reason for him to focus on it at PMQs. That and because he knows any deal Rishi Sunak strikes with the EU over the coming week is likely to drive a thick wedge between him and his party. On the Conservative benches there is a rumble of rebellion and the whiff of mutiny. Yes, it’s suddenly all gone a bit 2018 around here again.
Henry Deedes: Dull old Sir Keir Starmer loves discussing the Northern Ireland Protocol. This is his specialist subject, his favourite Desert Islands discs all recorded onto one long, dreary compilation album
Sir Keir was clearly relishing the prospect of opening up another Tory row over Europe. He entered the chamber yesterday with a proprietorial air and a grin as wide as a motorway. His hair was crimped and coiffed like heavily whisked egg-whites, so stiff it looked as though he’d gone through two cans of hairspray. Or was it starch?
He taunted the Prime Minister over the Eurosceptics threatening to cause trouble. ‘The Irreconcilables’ was how he described them — the Spartans, the die-hards who would sooner crawl through an open sewer than accept a deal which forces Northern Ireland to follow EU law.
One of the big sticking points on the deal is said to be the role of the European Court of Justice. The EU wants it to remain arbiter over any future trade disputes. The DUP is adamant that there will be an agreement for ECJ snouts to be kept well out of Northern Ireland’s affairs. ‘That’s not going to happen,’ sneered Starmer, that nasal vibrato of his twanging with undisguised glee.
Mr Sunak breezily insisted nothing had been agreed yet. Talks with the Brussels bureaucrats were still ongoing. Plenty still to play for and all that.
He knows any deal Rishi Sunak strikes with the EU over the coming week is likely to drive a thick wedge between him and his party
He accused Starmer of ‘jumping ahead’. From Labour’s benches there came the inevitable guttural scream of ‘Ger on wi’ it!’ That noted loudmouth Dame Margaret Beckett up to her old tricks no doubt.
The PM accused Starmer of taking his ‘usual position’ with the EU — ‘give them a blank cheque and agree to anything they offer. It’s not a strategy, that’s surrender!’ That at least produced a momentary cheer.
Sir Keir asked whether MPs would be given a vote on the deal when it’s announced. He generously offered to put ‘country before party’ and whip his own MPs into voting for it.
Why promise to vote for deal without even seeing it yet? Well, partly because Starmer knows it will embarrass the government if it needs Labour’s help to get it over the line. But mainly, one suspects, because he wants anything remotely Brexity well out of the way before a general election.
Sir Keir asked whether MPs would be given a vote on the deal when it’s announced. He generously offered to put ‘country before party’ and whip his own MPs into voting for it
‘Of course,’ Rishi insisted, Parliament would get to have its view. Which was not quite a definite ‘yes’ to a vote.
Over the corner of the chamber, seasoned Tory Eurosceptics Bill Cash (Stone) and David Jones (Clwyd W) adopted the same horrified expressions they wore throughout the long, bad old days of those dreaded ‘meaningful votes’. Think of two clubland trenchermen who’ve just been informed the steak and kidney pud has been removed from the bill of fare.
Meanwhile, seated on her in her usual perch two rows behind the PM was the sepulchral figure of Theresa May, observing her successor’s obvious discomfiture. She wore the colours of the Ukrainian flag. Etched on her face was an expression which seemed to say ‘Been there, done that dearie, got the T-shirt’.
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