Standing ovation for triumphant Jeremy Corbyn

Theresa May makes non-partisan speech about the value of political service

Theresa May returned to the Commons chamber on Tuesday for the first time since the election to find a sharp drop in the temperature on the benches behind her. On the other side of the aisle, Jeremy Corbyn arrived to a standing ovation from Labour MPs, few of whom had an obliging word to say about him before last Thursday night.

They were there for the election of the speaker, which saw John Bercow win praise from all sides of the house as he was re-elected unanimously.

“At least someone got a landslide,” the prime minister said at the start of a speech that was a mostly non-partisan paean about the value of political service.

Corbyn began with a tribute to Ken Clarke, who has returned as father of the house, recalling that when he became an MP in 1983, Clarke already seemed to be firmly established at Westminster.


“I’ve never quite forgotten the image of the member for Rushcliffe in the tearoom wearing Hush Puppies, eating bacon sandwiches, drinking super strength lager and carrying a cigar while taking a break from a debate on healthy living,” he said.

A huge red rose in his buttonhole, Corbyn could not conceal his satisfaction at the remarkable turn of events which had seen him returning to Westminster in triumph while May sat opposite, a diminished figure dependent on the kindness of her backbenchers. He didn’t try.

‘Wondrous’ democracy

“It is customary on these occasions to congratulate the returning prime minister and I absolutely do so. I am sure she will agree with me that democracy is a wondrous thing and can throw up some very unexpected results. I am sure that we all look forward to welcoming the queen’s speech just as soon as the coalition of chaos has been negotiated. I will just let the house and the rest of the nation know that if that is not possible, the Labour Party stands ready to offer strong and stable leadership in the national interest,” he said.

The prime minister's smile looked more like a wince, as her chancellor Philip Hammond looked straight ahead beside her. May was planning to sack Hammond following her expected victory last week; her failure to win a majority has left him stronger, and with no obligation to her.

The prime minister is close to a deal with the DUP which will give her a small majority but the election has left her Brexit strategy in confusion. There is no longer a majority in parliament for May's hard Brexit and ministers have hinted at a softer approach. On Tuesday, however, she appointed Steve Baker, long the shop steward for hardline Brexiteers on the Conservative back benches, as a Brexit minister.

“The language of ‘hard’ vs ‘soft’ Brexit is so misleading. We need a good, clean exit which minimises disruption and maximises opportunity. In other words, we need the ‘softest’ exit consistent with actually leaving and controlling laws, money, borders and trade,” Baker tweeted just before his appointment.

The prime minister flew to Paris after the speaker's election, to spend the evening with Emmanuel Macron, yet another politician she had to congratulate on his landslide victory.