With Theresa May in China, stand-ins David Lidington and Emily Thornberry clashed at Prime Minister’s Questions. What happened?
David Lidington may not exactly be a household name but it is not the first time he has stood in for Theresa May. Emily Thornberry wasted no time in reminding him of one of his earlier appearances, in December 2016, when the then justice secretary goaded Labour over its poor opinion poll ratings and in-fighting.
“Well, what a difference a year makes,” cried the shadow foreign secretary.
She asked about increasing the number of women MPs – on the centenary of votes for women – before launching into the first of five questions about lowering the voting age to 16.
This was a rare outing on the big stage for an issue that Labour has been campaigning on for a while. Mr Lidington was having none of it, insisting that voting came with the “rights and responsibilities” of age and few other countries had votes at 16.
He also sent fact checkers into a spin by claiming 97 members of the Labour front bench have either been sacked or resigned since Jeremy Corbyn took over as leader.
Mr Lidington hit back at Ms Thornberry’s claim that 16-year-olds, who could join the forces, start a family and leave home, deserved to have a say in the running of the country, with a list of all the things Labour stopped them from doing when they were in power.
Labour raised the age for buying cigarettes, fireworks, knives and even using sunbeds to 18, he said, hardly consistent, he suggested with reducing the voting age to 16.
Speaker John Bercow came to Ms Thornberry’s aid by telling the “noisy, boorish and in one case rather stupid” MPs, who he claimed always made more noise “when a woman is addressing the house”, to shut up.
Ms Thornberry suggested 16 and 17-year-old carers, who have “given up their youth”, should not be denied a say at the ballot box – and cited the lower voting age in Scotland and Wales.
We then came to the possible reason why she had chosen this subject – a past quote from Mr Lidington at the Youth Parliament, which appeared to suggest he supported lowering the voting age.
Ms Thornberry’s jibe about the DUP and the Tories being a “coalition of cavemen” raised a few laughs but did not appear to phase Mr Lidington, who hit back with a crack about the Flintstones. (No shouts of “yabba dabba doo” though.)
Young people could take an interest in current affairs and when the time was right – 18 – they could take part in elections, he told MPs, just like they did in 26 of the 27 other members of the EU. He ended by advising Ms Thornberry to “grow up”.
What else came up?
The SNP’s leader at Westminster, Iain Blackford brought up the leaked government document suggesting the UK would be worse off if it left the EU single market, claiming the government was “in crisis” over Brexit.
(He also managed to squeeze in a reference to the Robin which had been flapping around the chamber before PMQs, bringing a bit of light relief to Welsh questions)
Mr Lidington, who campaigned for Remain in the EU referendum, gave a rote response about the UK officially leaving the single market on Brexit day, before taking a swipe at the SNP, saying the “most important single market to the people of Scotland is the single market of the United Kingdom”.
Labour’s David Lammy asked about cuts to the police and border force.
Labour’s John Mann asked about North/South funding discrepancies.
Here is what Daily Politics presenter Andrew Neil made of it:
And here is BBC Parliamentary Correspondent Mark D’Arcy’s verdict:
A relatively brisk 42 minutes of PMQs today – perhaps because, with neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn taking part, there was less cacophony and the Speaker had to spend less time quelling noisy MPs. So what did we learn?
Emily Thornberry’s questioning on women’s representation in the Commons and on votes for 16 year-olds was a smart choice both in electoral and in internal party terms. And while David Lidington produced an adroit, effective, response, she will, doubtless, feel it’s “job done”.
David Lidington is a long-serving, senior minister, with nothing to prove. Emily Thornberry has points to score and potential allies to win over. Both performers gave full rein to their inner luvvie, with some entertaining theatrics, but somehow it’s just never as real as when the two leaders do battle.
The backbench questioners caught the mood as well; most of the questions were either carefully “helpful” to their particular party, or raised constituency concerns. No-one on the backbenches sought to embarrass, or even pressure, the two stand-ins. There was a ritual exchange of courtesies and assurances between Mr Lidington and the DUP’s Leader, Nigel Dodds, protecting the Commons pact which is the Government’s delicate jugular vein, and there were signs that the SNP’s Ian Blackford has begun to get the hang of PMQs, with a well-honed question on Brexit and the Single Market.
Probably the nastiest moment came when Speaker Bercow complained of “boorish and in one case rather stupid” heckling. I’m not sure, from my viewpoint, who his target was – but I’m sure the MP in question will be smarting. But the Speaker is too secure on his Chair to worry about bruised backbench bruisers.