PMQs sketch: The final screech

Clegg nods off as Dave's last friend covers the whole decibel range.

When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote  that "into every life a little rain must fall,” he had not envisioned David Cameron or he would have changed the forecast.

After the worst night in his political life (so far) the Prime Minister returned to the House of Commons certain at last where to find his enemies: wherever he looked.

Bad enough to head for bed having been humiliated by his own side without being due a second slice of scorn at Prime Ministers Questions.

Indeed the House had a festive air about it as MPs on all sides celebrated their various parts in the drubbing of Dave, not to mention Nick (and nobody did) over the House of Lords.

Their mood was obviously helped by that wonderful parliamentary fact that wherever you are in the political calendar, another holiday is just around the corner; in this case a six week break starting next Tuesday.

Some seemed to have seized the chance to pack early and sadly amongst the missing was Hereford Tory MP Jesse Norman who played a large part in organizing 91 of his fellow travelers to desert Dave and described the Lords legislation as a “dead duck”.

MPs were hoping to check Jesse for signs of violence following reports of handbags incident involving him and the PM in the Commons late last night.

Mr Norman who, like Mr Cameron went to Eton and is old enough to have demanded Dave fetch his tea and crumpets, was apparently “escorted from the premises” following the conversation with his leader and is no longer tipped for promotion.

As Mr Norman weighs in among the “extra-large” size of MPs, observers were keen to see if Dave bore any marks of the conversation which his spokesman had denied could be characterized as an “argumentative exchange”.

Indeed there had been reports of the PM being spotted around the Commons at an ungodly hour this morning, no scars showing but with a face “like  a slapped ****,” to borrow a presentational technique seen this week at the John Terry trial.

But there were no extra signs of violence about Dave’s front as he took his place for PMQs although it was impossible to check his back for knife wounds inflicted the night before. 

As Dave sat waiting for his next humiliation his chief bodyguard and architect of the Government’s political strategy, Chancellor George, sat slumped forlornly in his seat. 

It would have been hard anyway to spot facial contusions since the PM had abandoned his usual practice of working himself up into a frenzy during the session by turning up already prepped.

In fact had he not been able to call witnesses to his whereabouts earlier his colour was such that you would have thought he had come straight from the tanning shop.

This then was the backdrop to the final appearance before the summer recess of not just hero-to-zero Dave but also zero-to-hero Ed Miliband.

Just eight short months ago you could have got better odds on Shergar winning the Derby than Ed winning the next election.

Indeed some of his own MPs would have been happy to splash their cash on Ed not even being their leader come 2015.

So the present PM must have thought he was living a nightmare as Mili uncoiled himself, to the cheers of those now happy to revise their opinions, to deliver an end of term report on his the last eight months.

Did Dave remember saying “I think I’d be good at it” when asked before the election if he wanted to be PM? asked the Labour leader. 

“Last night he lost control of his party and, not for the first time, his temper," said Ed as Dave’s regularly booked antagonist Ed Balls smiled so widely he almost swallowed his head.

The PM’s temper usually rises, like his colour, in direct mathematical proportion to his time on his feet. But having arrived in the Commons puced-up he was already in full Flashman when he got to his feet.

His own side - now apparently suddenly aware of the damage they had inflicted - tried manfully - and womanfully - to come to his support. So much so that MP Anne Marie Morris, sporting a suspicious sling around the arm that party whips are known to twist, spanned the whole decibel range to end in strangulated silence as she tried to show her leader that he still had one friend.

Meanwhile sitting silently by his side, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who described last night’s vote as “a huge triumph,” appeared to nod off.

 
Dave entered the Commons (unusually) pre-puced. Photo: 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.