PMQs sketch: Insults abound as quaffing beckons

Dave not so chillaxed after questions on vino and socialism.

Ed Balls may or may not be useful to the Labour Party as Shadow Chancellor, but as insulter-in-chief to the Prime Minister he has no match.
Having already been awarded the title of "most annoying man in modern politics" by Dave at a previous encounter, you might have thought that the old Brown bruiser would have been content to rest on his laurels.

But the smell of blood-to-be during the latest round of what purported to be Prime Ministers Questions proved once again too tempting for someone who has got far enough up the PM's nose to operate on his adenoids.

And Ed B was back excavating at his best today when he managed to produce another quality aside from the PM.

Having worked on him for 25 minutes with a variety of selected insults from his notes on bear baiting, Ed finally hit the Dave release button  with an apparent aside about how many glasses of wine the Prime Minister may have had.

Let us point out immediately this was not to suggest Dave had quaffed a couple on his way to the Commons to calm his nerves - but rather a reference to weekend reports that our "chillaxing" PM is reported to knock back a half a bottle of what passes for Vino Collapso in his circles with his Sunday roast.

These reports caused further consternation among the we-are-not-too-sure-about-Dave faction which is being sponsored by the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. The PM was unhappy, to say the least, with Ed B's contribution from what is known in the House of Commons as a "sedentary position" - and in the real world as sitting down.

Thus Dave rebuked "this muttering idiot sitting opposite me" to the delight of all sides, who had become a bit bored with proceedings anyway as sunshine and quaffing elsewhere beckoned.

Now among the many arcane rules of the Commons chamber is the one that says you can say what you like  as long as the Speaker doesn't hear it - which is just as well for John Bercow bearing in mind what many MPs say about him.

As both sides swapped whatever insults came to hand and Tories demanded more retribution from their leader, Speaker Bercow kept shouting order which seemed rather apposite following the original Ed B insult.

Dave agreed to withdraw the word "idiot" but with all the reluctance of someone who realised he could have withdrawn something considerably ruder had he not been poked so sharply.

Sadly for some the insult that was not withdrawn during PMQs was the shocking suggestion made by a multi-million pound pal of the Prime Minister that the Business Secretary Vince Cable was "a socialist".

The afore-mentioned multi, who made his money forecasting other people's disasters, had shot to sudden fame with a report on cutting red tape for business to encourage employment. One of the more novel ways would be to scrap employment protection, which he admitted could let bosses sack workers just because they didn't like them.

Vince described his plan as "bonkers" - a word clearly only ever used by Karl Marx - and he was immediately denounced.

Proud of demonstrating their Lib-Dem credentials in the coalition government, Vince and his leader Nick Clegg were missing from the Chamber to the relief of Dave and the sadness of the Labour leader Ed Miliband, who could only warm up the PM for the eventual Flashman moment won by his alter-Ed.

Throughout all the jolly proceedings seasoned watchers will have noted the thousand-yard stare of Chancellor George who only absent-mindedly rubbed the bruised parts of his now decidedly un-chillaxed best buddy Dave.

The PM trotted out the European Court of Human Rights - far more threatening than Karl Marx - to try to get back onside with his critics, but you could see his relief when the Speaker thought the nation had had enough and called time.

Meanwhile, Frank Field said the Food Bank believed they would be feeding 500,000 people by the next election.

Photograph: Getty Images

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

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Does it matter that Westminster journalists have a WhatsApp group?

Well yes, a little.

“#WESTMINSTERBUBBLE JOURNOS CHAT ON #WHATSAPP. NOW THAT’S INTERESTING,” writes the alt-left site Skwawkbox.

Its story refers to the fact that Westminster journalists have a WhatsApp group chat. The site finds this sinister, suggesting the chat could be used to “swap info, co-ordinate stories and narratives”:

“It’s a technology that worries Home Secretary Amber Rudd, in case terrorists use it – but its use by the Establishment for 1984-style message co-ordination would worry many people just as much.”

Skwawkbox’s shock was mocked by lobby journalists and spinners:


Your mole, who has sniffed around the lobby in its day, also finds the suggestion of journalists using the app for terrorist-style collusion a little hard to swallow. Like every other industry, journos are using WhatsApp because it’s the latest easy technology to have group chats on – and it’s less risky than bitching and whining in a Twitter DM thread, or on email, which your employers can access.

But my fellow moles in the Skwawkbox burrow have hit on something, even if they’ve hyped it up with the language of conspiracy. There is a problem with the way lobby journalists of different publications decide what the top lines of stories are every day, having been to the same briefings, and had the same chats.

It’s not that there’s a secret shady agreement to take a particular line about a certain party or individual – it’s that working together in such an environment fosters groupthink. They ask questions of government and opposition spokespeople as a group, they dismiss their responses as a group, and they decide the real story as a group.

As your mole’s former colleague Rafael Behr wrote in 2012:

“At the end [of a briefing], the assembled hacks feel they have established some underlying truth about what really happened, which, in the arch idiom of the trade, is generally agreed to have been revealed in what wasn’t said.”

Plus, filing a different story to what all your fellow reporters at rival papers have written could get you in trouble with your editor. The columnist David Aaronovitch wrote a piece in 2002, entitled “The lobby system poisons political journalism”, arguing that rather than pursuing new stories, often this ends up with lobby journalists repeating the same line:

“They display a "rush to story", in which they create between them an orthodoxy about a story – which then becomes impossible to dislodge.”

This tendency for stories to become stifled even led to the Independent and others boycotting the lobby in the Eighties, he notes.

Of course, colleagues in all industries have always communicated for work, social and organisational reasons in some way, and using WhatsApp is no different. But while Skwawkbox’s “revelation” might seem laughable to insiders, most people don’t know how political journalism works behind-the-scenes. It touches on a truth about how Westminster journalists operate – even if it’s wrong about their motive.

I'm a mole, innit.