Today’s PMQs

The first of the new Lib-Con parliamentary era.

A rather sombre start to a historic (and delayed) PMQs today, given the horrific shootings in Cumbria and (as usual) the cross-party nod to the latest tragic and pointless deaths of British squaddies in Afghanistan.

The Tory backbencher Douglas Carswell kicked off proceedings by asking whether or not there would be a bill to ensure Lords reform in the next 12 months and, specifically, that "all our lawmakers" will be elected.

The Prime Minister's answer? "There will be a draft motion by December, which the House can vote on. I've always supported a predominantly elected House of Lords." He used the phrase "predominantly elected " again, later, in the same answer.

So, not quite a whole-hearted "yes" from Cameron, I would argue. Others might disagree and I suppose they'd have a point: 70 or 80 per cent elected is better than nothing. Labour failed on Lords reform.

Once again, Harriet Harman, the acting Labour leader, did a solid, assured and competent job at the despatch box. Her first few questions were on the Middle East and on the coalition's plan to grant anonymity to rape defendants, which elicited mature and serious responses from the Prime Minister. For a moment, we were actually witnessing a grown-up, non-Punch-and-Judy discussion between the party leaders in the House. But it also meant we had to wait until Harman switched the subject to the married couple's tax allowance to hear the raucous cheering, braying or booing from all sides that we normally associate with PMQs.

To loud Labour cheers, Harman, for example, mocked Cameron's claim that a £3-a-week allowance would keep couples together and prevent the "family breakdowns" he believes are the cause of so much of this nation's poverty, crime and antisocial behaviour. I noticed Nick Clegg sitting quietly behind Cameron, smiling awkwardly as the Prime Minister made the case for this particular tax break. So did Harman, who had come prepared with this particular zinger: "On this... Nick agrees with me." (Clegg, you will remember, described the Tory proposals on marriage, during the election campaign, as "patronising drivel that belong in the Edwardian age. David Cameron clearly has no idea about modern life.")

As the BBC's political correspondent Mike Sergeant pointed out:

This will surely be Labour's tactic every week -- their aim will be to make Nick Clegg squirm. But the Lib Dem leader seemed comfortable enough as Mr Cameron batted this one away.

Seeing as Cameron has long seen himself as the "heir to Blair", it shouldn't have been a surprise to see Tory backbenchers behaving in 2010 as their New Labour counterparts did in 1997: loyally, slavishly, uncritically, robotically.

Adam Holloway, MP for Gravesham, who claimed £1.95 for lightbulbs on his expenses, moaned about overspending by the previous government. The newly elected MP for Stratford-on-Avon, Nadim Zahawi, the first Iraqi Kurd to ask a question at PMQs, chose not to ask about the chaos in his country of origin, or the concerns of his new constituents in Shakespeareland, but instead asked the Prime Minister if he was surprised that so many civil servants earned more than him. The newly elected MP for Stroud, Neil Carmichael, asked Cameron if his local maternity unit could count on the Prime Minister's support. I started to feel my lunch coming up...

Then again, the Labour members weren't much better. I couldn't count a single question that put the Prime Minister on the spot or challenged him in any significant way. The opposition will have to raise its game in the coming weeks. David Cameron, to borrow a pre-election phrase from Andrew Marr, "is on a roll".

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred