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Make no mistake—Theresa May is weak

And her weakness is more important than Jeremy Corbyn's

By Jay Elwes  

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London ©PA/PA Wire/Press Association Images

And suddenly both leaders look frail. It makes a change.

At today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Theresa May had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn, pointing out to him that, as he faces a leadership contest and Parliament will soon stand for recess, this could be his last PMQs as Labour leader. It was a poor quip, and one delivered with little of the necessary lightness of touch.

An essentially weak leader, Corbyn will nevertheless return victorious later in the autumn. This would not turn him into an election-winner. Not remotely. But it will keep him in place.

Theresa May’s position has begun to look more problematic. In grammar schools, she seems to have found a policy capable of rousing even Jeremy Corbyn, who today showed a striking amount of passion. At one point, the normally rather phlegmatic Corbyn bellowed so loudly at the Prime Minister that the Conservative back benches gave an ironic, “Oooooh!”

Corbyn’s opposition aside, there are two central problems with the government’s plan to reintroduce grammar schools: first is the lack of evidence showing that they work; the second is the huge amount of evidence suggesting that they do not. Corbyn pressed May on this repeatedly in the chamber today. She deflected his attacks by pointing out that both she and Corbyn went to grammar schools—and look where it got us.

In a briefing after PMQs, a No10 spokesman was also unable to cite any evidence in support of grammars, and stressed that the plan was not simply to go back to the educational system of the 1950s. The idea is to develop something altogether new.

Most dangerously, May faces dissent among her own MPs, some of whom have been speaking to the press. Remember, her working majority in the Commons is only 17. It is not impossible that May will lose a Commons vote on the return of grammar schools. A defeat of this kind would be shattering for her administration. It would also give a huge boost to Corbyn.

An even greater weakness is Brexit. May didn’t vote for it, her MPs didn’t want it and Jean Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, has made clear that the UK will never have “à la carte,” access to Europe’s internal market—which is precisely what David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union is trying to get. Perhaps recognising the impossibility of this task, Davis recently told the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that it was “possible,” that Britain could leave the EU with no trade deal in place.

The Prime Minister has also decided, absurdly, that the government will offer “no running commentary,” on Britain’s Brexit negotiations with the EU. It is hard to see that position as being anything other than damaging. Politicians, in general, tend to publicise their successes. Silence only encourages the conclusion either that negotiations have achieved nothing, or that they are going so badly that the government doesn’t want to talk about them. A further danger is that the EU representatives on the other side of the negotiating table, who have no interest in keeping quiet, start talking.

The Prime Minister’s honeymoon is over. If her Brexit negotiations continue to go nowhere, or if her policy on grammar schools is defeated, then she might need to placate her right wing in some other way, perhaps by enacting Article 50 sooner than she would like. This would begin the two-year countdown to Britain’s departure from the EU.

Corbyn’s weakness is less important than May’s. He has the power to damage the Labour party, whereas the PM has the national interest in her hands. If she holds this current course, trouble awaits.

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