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.

Show Hide image

Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear