PMQs sketch: Humps and u-turns for a puce PM

Dizzy Dave defends his latest backtrack.

It is befitting for someone who went to Eton and Oxford that when they get the hump they should not be restricted to the common or garden dromedary variety but instead move on immediately to the bactrian.

So it was that David Cameron adopted the two-hump approach to Prime Ministers Questions as he tried yet again, and failed yet again, to defend the government’s latest u-turn on the Budget-from-hell of 2012.

Scoring a goal against him at PMQs has become a bit like taking part in a penalty shoot-out (pause for private grief) when the keeper has decided to pop out for a ciggy.

But that was never going to deter Ed Miliband who is getting better by the week at putting the boot into the boot-boy.

Cheered on lustily by those who just months ago had their own leadership doubts, Ed charged Dave with “panic at the pumps” over the sudden decision yesterday to postpone plans to stick an extra 3p tax on fuel just milli-seconds after the Sun had published and backed just such a call from Ed Balls.

The Prime Minister used to take a while letting everything above his collar turn various shades of puce but now he saves time by turning up already sporting the necessary colour.

Indeed had a stove-pipe been fixed to his head he was generating enough steam to give a passing imitation of a stationary Flying Scot, with suitable apologies to anyone offended north of the border.

As Dave tried to shout his way out of his latest embarrassment the man behind it all, Chancellor George, could only sit strategically out of reach down the government’s front bench and join his erstwhile BF in that most wonderfully descriptive verb “to squirm”.

They were joined by Ttransport secretary Justine Greening, who Ed named as just one of the many members of the cabinet who had not been been told in advance of Dave’s conversion over his cornflakes.

That just left the serried ranks of Tory MPs, who only yesterday received a note from HQ telling them how to defend the decision to put the tax up, to explain why it had now joined pasties and caravans on the government’s not-to-do list.

As the two party leaders squared up for the angry contest it would have taken a keen-eyed observer to note an oasis of calm, indeed an oasis of indifference which occupied the seat just to the right of the Prime Minister.

Step forward Deputy PM Nick Clegg who appeared to have sent his body along to PMQs but kept the thinking bit at home to do more useful things.

To be fair to Nick he had spent some time earlier in the day talking about the real challenges facing unemployed young people in the forgotten areas of the land like South Tyneside where jobs just do not exist.

Obviously surveys have been done and those in the North East with the dole as their only career option need help and encouragement and, or so it would appear to the Deputy Prime Minister, a reformed House of Lords.

Whether they talk of little else along the banks of the Tyne is not made fully clear but at least Nick has let it be known that this is where he will be concentrating his attention in the coming months, if not years.

The ungallant suggest that Lib Dem concern over the Lords is based on securing a home for their MPs who expect to be shafted by the electorate come 2015.

But whatever the reason the whole issue has all the makings of the next issue to get the paramedics out early checking on Dave’s blood pressure.

In his haste to get into Downing Street the Prime Minister promised Tory support for Nick’s reform but that was before his party realized the price that had to be paid for power.

With dozens of Tory rebels ready to do down the plan it is now up to Ed M to work out how to play the issue to his advantage; there are points of principle but expect those to be ignored.

Talking of which, Banquo’s ghost was out and about in Kensington.

Wearing his Tony Blair disguise he admitted he would like to be Prime Minister again, but added: “It’s not likely to happen.”

NB. Dave and Ed: He never said never.

Prime Minister David Cameron. Image: Getty Images

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

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change