If you were minded to judge the tone of the new Parliament by the performance of the two leaders at the first Prime Minister’s Questions this week, you would probably feel reassured.
Theresa May was stronger than her disastrous post-election appearances would have predicted, buoyed by MPs on the Conservative benches lending her support.
Jeremy Corbyn, too, mustered a surprisingly decent attack. Instead of reading out meandering questions from voters, he was targeted and to the point. And if his partisan attempt to blame the devastating Grenfell Tower fire on austerity was crudely opportunistic (which it was), it was at least a good deal more hard-hitting than we have come to expect from a leader who still resembles a bewildered supply teacher.
Is this a sign that things are starting to simmer down in Westminster, and that the feuds, splits and turbulence of the past two months are finally settling?
In short, no.
Let’s start with Labour. Corbyn enjoyed the unfamiliar experience of having his benches behind him for once on Wednesday, and much has been made of the parliamentary Labour party singing “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” on the steps of Westminster Hall. But this is still a party in distress, as the amendments to the Queen’s Speech put forward yesterday demonstrate.
Chuka Umunna, who used to be one of Labour’s champions before the Corbyn era, tabled an amendment which would commit the UK to remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union. While popular among Labour MPs, this contradicted the party’s manifesto stance on the EU, which prioritised ending freedom of movement.
His move brought the surreal divides between Corbyn, the eurosceptic leader who has opposed UK membership of the EU for years, and his broadly pro-EU party into sharp relief. Labour MPs were actually instructed to abstain from the vote in a bizarre move that amounted to an opposition party trying to prevent its members from opposing the government.
When it came to it, 49 Labour MPs defied the whip and voted in favour, including six members of the front bench. Three of these brave rebels resigned. Corbyn promptly sacked the rest.
Stella Creasy's triumph
The second Labour amendment was also controversial. Stella Creasy cut to the heart of the Tories’ much-scorned deal with the DUP, by raising the plight faced by Northern Irish women seeking abortions.
Devolution means that, though termination is legal in most of the UK, it is banned in Northern Ireland, meaning women there must travel to Great Britain and pay out of pocket for the procedure which would otherwise be free on the NHS. It’s an archaic technicality that has received little coverage in recent years, but has become central to the concerns about the DUP’s impact on social justice issues in the rest of the UK.
Creasy’s amendment would have forced a vote on the issue, requiring a tough decision from the Tories: whip votes against the amendment, and open the party up to criticism about the DUP’s undue influence, or allow a free vote, and risk losing on a Queen’s Speech amendment, which could theoretically lead to another election.
Instead, the government caved, promising funds for Northern Irish women to obtain the procedure in England, and thus safeguarding the fragile devolution system that allows the Stormont Assembly in Belfast to make its own decisions on healthcare. But it was a smart move by Creasy – another former Labour rising star who has been sidelined and harassed by the Corbyn-backing Momentum group.
Think how effective Labour could be in opposition if the Corbynites did not insist on ostracising some of the party’s most effective MPs.
Northern Ireland in the mix
It’s not as if the Tories are holding out much better, as the panic over Creasy’s amendment shows. The alliance with the DUP is awkward and unpopular even within the party. But it is also causing problems beyond Westminster.
At 4pm yesterday, the deadline passed for Northern Irish parties to agree on a new power-sharing arrangement in Stormont. This is a saga that has lasted months, triggered by the resignation of former Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness after a dispute with the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, over a renewable energy initiative. But there is no doubt that May’s decision to bring one Northern Irish party into the heart of government has exacerbated the stalemate and added an extra layer of tension to an already strained situation.
Northern Ireland now faces the prospect of direct rule from Westminster for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Although the deadline has now been extended to Monday, the failure shows that the “Irish question” will continue to be an unexpected headache for the new government. And that’s before we even consider the two parties’ opposing views on Brexit.
If anything, this week has been proof that nothing about this new Parliament is stable. Both parties face civil wars, both leaders endure unprecedented hostility, and there is still no clear line on Brexit – the most defining issue to be faced by a government in generations. How can we expect anyone to get anything done?