Prime Minister's Questions: The key bits and the verdict

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter

image source, HOC

Theresa May went head-to-head with Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons. Here's what happened.

All eyes were on the three Conservative defectors who took their seats next to their new, former Labour, colleagues on the opposition benches for the first time.

But it was business as usual for Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

In a formulaic clash, the Labour leader called once again on the prime minister to rule out a no-deal Brexit - only to be told, once again, there were two ways to do that - stay in the EU or back her deal.

There was no mention of defections - and both the opposition and government benches were a bit quieter than usual.

Both leaders began with warm tributes to veteran Labour MP Paul Flynn, who died this week.

And Mr Corbyn responded to an earlier question from a Tory MP about anti-Semitism, saying it had "no place whatsoever in any of our political parties, in our lives, in our society".

Then it was back to Brexit, with Mr Corbyn quoting an EU official who had said the UK government was "only pretending to negotiate".

He asked what the prime minister was planning to discuss with the EU when she travelled to Brussels later on Wednesday.

Mrs May told him the Brexit secretary and attorney general had had "constructive" meetings with the EU earlier this week - and she would be seeking the "legally binding changes" requested by MPs.

"Sounds like it might be confusing for the European Commission to find out exactly what the prime minister is turning up with," said Mr Corbyn in a muttered aside.

Three different groups were working on three different plans regarding the "backstop" to keep the Irish border open if the UK left the EU without an all-encompassing deal: to remove it, to time-limit it and to add a unilateral exit clause, said the Labour leader. So which one was it?

There were "a number of ways" to address MPs' concerns about the backstop plan, said Mrs May, and the important thing was to find "solutions" that would deliver for Northern Ireland and the House of Commons.

Conservative MP Sir Oliver Letwin had warned recently that the prime minister would "head for the exit door without a deal" if her agreement did not succeed, said Mr Corbyn, and he was "right". Did recent job losses in car factories "matter" to her?

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The prime minister said the decision by Honda earlier this week to close its plant in Swindon was "disappointing" but the company had been "absolutely clear" it was not due to Brexit.

Mr Corbyn replied that the prime minister "doesn't seem very interested" in listening to companies saying that the UK needed to be in a customs union with the EU.

Mrs May said car manufacturers had voiced their support for her deal - and urged the Labour leader to break the habit of a lifetime and welcome the latest employment figures.

Mr Corbyn then launched an attack on zero-hours contracts and said people on low pay were having to use food banks.

For his final question, Mr Corbyn said unions and business groups wanted a no-deal exit from the EU "ruled out". When, he asked the prime minister, would she put the interests of the British people ahead of the interests of the Conservative Party?

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The prime minister had saved up a few choice insults for Mr Corbyn to end their exchanges, telling him that in the modern Labour Party, the former deputy leader of Liverpool City Council Derek Hatton - who recently rejoined the party despite his expulsion following a disciplinary hearing in 1986 - was a "hero", while, in a reference to comments made by shadow chancellor John McDonnell last week, wartime leader Winston Churchill was a "villain".

"[Clement ] Attlee and [Aneurin] Bevan will be spinning in their graves," she told Mr Corbyn, referring to the post-War Labour government's prime minister and health minister.

What else came up?

The SNP's Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, made a passing reference to the new Independent Group of defected MPs, saying Westminster was "broken" - and asking whether MPs would have a meaningful vote on Mrs May's EU deal next month?

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Conservative MP Maria Caulfield also brought up the defections - pointing out that a Labour councillor in Brighton had just defected to the Conservatives in protest, she said, at anti-Semitism.

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The Verdict

Here is BBC parliamentary correspondent Mark D'Arcy's take

Well that was a bit bizarre.

Prime Minister's Questions had the air of a middle-class dinner party where everyone was trying to pretend that some gargantuan social faux pas had not occurred.

All 11 members of the new Independent Group - eight former Labour MPs and three ex-Conservatives were gathered at their new roosting point, behind the SNP and the Lib Dems, and alongside the DUP -but their presence remained unremarked, until a parenthetical reference from the Lib Dem Tom Brake.

No-one snarled. No-one cooed.

A few MPs actually ventured over for a friendly word. The SNP's Pete Wishart joked with Anna Soubry. Labour's Barry Sheerman actually edged on to the SNP benches to say something amicable to Sarah Wollaston. Plaid Cymru's Westminster leader, Liz Saville Roberts, paid a friendly social call. You half expected someone to bring a basket of muffins.

Meanwhile, across the chamber, Conservative ex-ministers Nicki Morgan and Philip Lee stood in what had been the Remainer "naughty corner" and fixed an unreadable stare on their departed colleagues.

Mr Lee, who had, earlier on Wednesday, insisted that, despite his uber-Remain views on Brexit, he was not leaving the Conservative Party, chatted earnestly with Remainer minister Stephen Hammond, with party colleagues throwing curious glances in his direction.

The actual questions seemed almost secondary to the theatre attendant on the birth process for what may soon be a full-dress new party.

There were Brexit questions, questions about anti-Semitism and constituency questions - but the only time the word "defection" was uttered was in the context of a Labour councillor in Brighton who'd switched to the Tories.

Oddly, the Indy Group themselves made no attempt to intervene, watching, chatting and consulting social media.

I can see why the main parties didn't wish to big them up with some direct attack - but the motive behind their silence is harder to fathom.