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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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