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
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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