PMQs sketch: A momentarily eerie etiquette

"Pipe down and be good boys".

It is fitting that scientists chose the Palace of Westminster to announce they were 99.999% sure they had found the Higgs boson particle - the final piece of the Standard Model of Particle Physics which theoretically describes the fundamental forces that control our universe - as, just yards away, the controllers of our present slice of infinity were meeting for Prime Minister's Questions.

The intellectual force behind PMQs had been summed up earlier by the Deputy Prime Minister of the coalition government who described himself as being “lobotomised” by the weight of its everyday activity.

Official confirmation by Nick Clegg of what many had suspected for some time was welcomed by observers who looked to PMQs for further confessions, but were 99.999% sure they would not get them.

To be fair to the participants, they knew they were merely making time for the real main event of the day, the appearance of Diamond Bob before the Treasury Select Committee.

But that was not going to stop the Government and its Loyal Opposition fighting like cats in a sack over how we are going to discover just how deep into our pockets he and Barclays bank had stuck their hands.

In an opening performance almost as rare as the Higgs boson itself the Prime Minister and his opposite number confused everyone by trying statesmanlike behaviour.

Unbeknown to their loyal supporters frantic, as usual, to get at their opposite numbers Dave had phoned Ed yesterday and suggested they adopt a non-partisan approach to the planned inquiry into the banks.

This led to total confusion in the Commons as both spent the first five minutes of PMQs being polite to each other. “You first”, indicated Ed as he proposed a softer more edible version of his call for a judge-led inquiry. "No , after you", seemed Dave’s reply as he sweetened his description of his select-committee alternative.

There was no difference in substance between him and Ed, said the PM, as Chancellor George nodded in agreement and the other Ed, his shadow, sat uncharacteristically mute.

The normally voluble terraces were stunned by this outbreak of light over heat. They sat momentarily transfixed, rattles, vuvuzuelas and voices eerily silent.

But those who kept the faith knew it could not last and within minutes of peace breaking out it was abandoned in favour of normal service.

Ed, whose plan had worryingly won the support of today’s Daily Mail, accused Dave of being out of touch with public opinion. His friend of just seconds earlier "did not get it,” said the Labour leader.

Dave, his colour thankfully returned to its normal puce, said he wasn’t going to have any lessons in “getting it” from the party that had been in government for 13 years.

With both sides now in full throat, Speaker Bercow signalled the return of business as usual by calling on Tory MPs to “pipe down and be good boys”, thus further enamouring himself to the party to which he still officially belongs.

Meanwhile as scientists over in Westminster Hall continued to celebrate the discovery of their rarely seen sub-atomic particle it was perhaps fitting that MPs should loudly cheer the discovery in their own ranks of a similar being, Tory MP Nicholas Soames.

Rarely seen before lunch, and sometimes missing afterwards, the Member of Parliament for Mid Sussex delighted all by lumbering to his feet with a loyal question about the banks ignored in the pleasure of confirming the earlier fears expressed by the Deputy PM.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Photo: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.