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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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