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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Brexit has opened up big rifts among the remaining EU countries

Other non-Euro countries will miss Britain's lobbying - and Germany and France won't be too keen to make up for our lost budget contributions.

Untangling 40 years of Britain at the core of the EU has been compared to putting scrambled eggs back into their shells. On the UK side, political, legal, economic, and, not least, administrative difficulties are piling up, ranging from the Great Repeal Bill to how to process lorries at customs. But what is less appreciated is that Brexit has opened some big rifts in the EU.

This is most visible in relations between euro and non-euro countries. The UK is the EU’s second biggest economy, and after its exit the combined GDP of the non-euro member states falls from 38% of the eurozone GDP to barely 16%, or 11% of EU’s total. Unsurprisingly then, non-euro countries in Eastern Europe are worried that future integration might focus exclusively on the "euro core", leaving others in a loose periphery. This is at the core of recent discussions about a multi-speed Europe.

Previously, Britain has been central to the balance between ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, often leading opposition to centralising eurozone impulses. Most recently, this was demonstrated by David Cameron’s renegotiation, in which he secured provisional guarantees for non-euro countries. British concerns were also among the reasons why the design of the European Banking Union was calibrated with the interests of the ‘outs’ in mind. Finally, the UK insisted that the euro crisis must not detract from the development of the Single Market through initiatives such as the capital markets union. With Britain gone, this relationship becomes increasingly lop-sided.

Another context in which Brexit opens a can of worms is discussions over the EU budget. For 2015, the UK’s net contribution to the EU budget, after its rebate and EU investments, accounted for about 10% of the total. Filling in this gap will require either higher contributions by other major states or cutting the benefits of recipient states. In the former scenario, this means increasing German and French contributions by roughly 2.8 and 2 billion euros respectively. In the latter, it means lower payments to net beneficiaries of EU cohesion funds - a country like Bulgaria, for example, might take a hit of up to 0.8% of GDP.

Beyond the financial impact, Brexit poses awkward questions about the strategy for EU spending in the future. The Union’s budgets are planned over seven-year timeframes, with the next cycle due to begin in 2020. This means discussions about how to compensate for the hole left by Britain will coincide with the initial discussions on the future budget framework that will start in 2018. Once again, this is particularly worrying for those receiving EU funds, which are now likely to either be cut or made conditional on what are likely to be more political requirements.

Brexit also upends the delicate institutional balance within EU structures. A lot of the most important EU decisions are taken by qualified majority voting, even if in practice unanimity is sought most of the time. Since November 2014, this has meant the support of 55% of member states representing at least 65% of the population is required to pass decisions in the Council of the EU. Britain’s exit will destroy the blocking minority of a northern liberal German-led coalition of states, and increase the potential for blocking minorities of southern Mediterranean countries. There is also the question of what to do with the 73 British MEP mandates, which currently form almost 10% of all European Parliament seats.

Finally, there is the ‘small’ matter of foreign and defence policy. Perhaps here there are more grounds for continuity given the history of ‘outsourcing’ key decisions to NATO, whose membership remains unchanged. Furthermore, Theresa May appears to have realised that turning defence cooperation into a bargaining chip to attract Eastern European countries would backfire. Yet, with Britain gone, the EU is currently abuzz with discussions about greater military cooperation, particularly in procurement and research, suggesting that Brexit can also offer opportunities for the EU.

So, whether it is the balance between euro ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, multi-speed Europe, the EU budget, voting blocs or foreign policy, Brexit is forcing EU leaders into a load of discussions that many of them would rather avoid. This helps explain why there is clear regret among countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, at seeing such a key partner leave. It also explains why the EU has turned inwards to deal with the consequences of Brexit and why, although they need to be managed, the actual negotiations with London rank fairly low on the list of priorities in Brussels. British politicians, negotiators, and the general public would do well to take note of this.

Ivaylo Iaydjiev is a former adviser to the Bulgarian government. He is currently a DPhil student at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford

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