PMQs sketch: Ghostly George and Mottled Dave

Did Cameron own up to the “omnishambles”?

 

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland brought his bottom to the House of Commons today and got it a good kicking.

Having spent much of the last month on the run abroad he finally bowed to the inevitable and appeared in public to face the charge of being guilty for the crime of Budget 2012.

Flanked by his co-defendants George Osborne and Nick Clegg,  he was accused of presiding over the “omnishambles” which has led to the worst four weeks in his political life and a double-digit lead for Labour in the opinion polls.

To be fair to David Cameron, he also brought his brass neck to the Commons to help him through the half hour of ritual humiliation otherwise known as Prime Ministers Questions.

But even that was not enough to save him from the taunts of Ed Miliband who happily listed all the disasters and u-turns from pasties to charities which have characterized the Coalition since the budget leaked its way into the public domain.

Even his topped-up tan could not disguise his nervousness as PMQs got underway, and encouraging asides from the architect of the disaster, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, did little to calm him down.

Knowing a beating was on its way had led to survival plans being drawn up. These seemed to include handing out megaphones to selected back benchers who always shout in direct proportion to the trouble their leader is in. The problem for the Prime Minister today was working out who was shouting for him and who at him and that was just from his own side.

Survival Plan Two is the one that Dave has increasingly adopted since Ed M finally got his measure at PMQs, which is to ignore the bit which says "PMQs". So today when Ed asked about cutting taxes for the rich, Dave replied by asking the Labour leader about Ken Livingstone’s opaque attitude to the inland revenue. 

Ken might have been heartened to get more name-checks in 30 minutes from the Prime Minister than he has had in as many months from Ed M, but as ever in his career he was being conjured up to beat his own party around the head.

But even Ed was only momentarily unsettled by this, Dave’s best shot, and pounced back to list the disasters that have turned this budget into a how-not-to-do-it lecture for politicians in years to come.

In one fell swoop the Prime Minister and his pals have managed to upset pensioners, the churches, philanthropists, caravan owners not to mention the population of Cornwall who apparently subsist on a diet of pasties. In fact so loud was the clamour that the good people of Cornwall could have listened to it merely by opening a window.

Speaker Bercow, himself rested after the Easter break and no recent TV appearances by his spouse, was forced to his feet to complain which only served to remind Tory back benchers of someone they dislike maybe even more than Ken.

There have been concerns in Labour circles that Ed M is too nice to out the boot in properly - unlike his Tory opposite number who has at least an A Level in bullying. But it was no more Mr Nice Guy today as Ed, egged on by his much more qualified namesake Ed B, laid it on.

Indeed, as Dave now appeared to be shouting himself down, the two Eds made a joint appeal for calm.

This had the required effect and the Prime Minister’s face took on a mottled hue only spotted towards the top end of the colour chart as he tried to roar his way out of trouble.

All this contrasted well with the ghostly pallor of the Chancellor and his deputy Danny Alexander who have clearly spent the last few weeks hiding out.

Earlier the fourth member of the Quad who collectively delivered the budget had appeared on the Today programme for a light toasting from Evan Davis. In a bravura performance and not withstanding his collapse behind Ukip in the polls, Nick Clegg admitted he would love to be Prime Minister.

But probably not today.

Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses