Political sketch: "Flashman" Dave asserts himself

But attacking a pensioner during election week is always bad form.

With United playing City in the most important derby game since the beginning of time you would have thought that MPs had better things to do before the match than bother the nation with politics.

Indeed, that was David Cameron’s gamble as he tried yet again to re-launch his political career after yet another of the worst weeks since his last worst week — the week before last.

But that was before Speaker Bercow intervened to give the Prime Minister the biggest dose of double dromedary since predecessor Gordon took the hump and headed for the Scottish hills two years ago.

His new beginning hadn’t exactly got off to a brilliant start anyway, what with the latest opinion polls showing the Tories double-digits behind Labour in the polls, Dave’s personal rating down again and local elections results due on Thursday.

But at least he thought he’d parked his present headache, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s love-in with the Murdoch family, with the Leveson inquiry, thereby giving him a few weeks grace.

But that was before Speaker John agreed to a Labour bid to haul the PM back into the Commons for one final roasting before they all disappeared until the Queen's Speech.

The Speaker's relations with Dave are said to be on the cold side of frozen stiff — but that was tropically warm compared to the atmosphere in the House of Commons as the Prime Minister turned up for his telling-off.

You could tell there would be no severe bashing today as the PM sat down with the embattled Jeremy firmly stapled to his side. And the danger of doing Commons business after lunch became immediately obvious as fans on both sides of the terraces let loose with the insults even before a fact was mentioned.

Ed Miliband, egged on by the Labour version of the Kop, hardly had to poke his stick into the PM before he was off and shouting foul and much worse. Ed demanded an immediate inquiry into relations between the Culture Secretary and the Murdochs in a sure-footed performance of someone who knows the high moral ground when he is standing on it. And Dave could only bluster in reply having pointedly reminded the Speaker that he’d said all this at Prime Ministers Questions last week.

Jeremy, breathing in and out like a goldfish with asthma, almost nodded his head off as his leader pronounced him not guilty — for the moment — and Chancellor George pressed even closer to him to prevent any attempt to flee the scene.

Notably absent from the PM’s other side was his Deputy Nick Clegg who, aware that his own deputy Simon Hughes was to back calls for an early inquiry, had chosen to go AWOL as indeed had the rest of the side of the coalition he provides.

As Dave’s temper grew shorter and shorter, the volume on his side grew louder apace, persuading Speaker Bercow to pour further oil on the flames by calling for calm.

It was to no avail and the PM’s well-known "Flashman" tendency finally asserted itself when Dennis Skinner made one of his traditionally blunt contributions, only to be told to take retirement and get his pension. Attacking pensioners in an election week is always bad form and even Dave’s side blanched a bit.

It was left finally to the wonderfully irrelevant Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory MP who looks and sounds exactly like his name, to say that only  “a socialist yahoo” would rush to make a decision. Ed could only smile at the compliment.

A member of the protest group Avaaz holds puppets depicting David Cameron (L) and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.