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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.