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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.