Political sketch: The perks of being PM

Referendum guns are out.

 

One of the perks of being Prime Minister is when you address the House of Commons you always have your back to your own side, providing the perfect answer to those who say you can only tell the truth when it stares you in the eye.

Thus in theory only Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is really able to see just how shifty you are - unless of course you speak.

And this was the mistake that David Cameron made, not for the first time, as he turned up in the chamber to answer charges of confusion and obfuscation over his position on Europe and referenda.

If there is one thing that those members of the Tory Party, who need written permission from their doctors to be out on the streets, hate even more than the Lib-Dems and John Bercow it is Europe - or at least those bits that don’t involve skiing and the French Riviera.

So extra pills were ordered and taken when they heard this weekend that Dave had at last said he was in favour of a referendum.

His conversion bore no relation of course to the plan by former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who qualifies in both the doctors' and recidivist camps to trundle out his referendum guns today.

But as befits a Tory Party in chaos ever since Chancellor George produced the budget-from-hell, more chaos was just around the corner.

Even as the faithful were reading the good news in their Sunday papers Foreign Secretary William Hague was being trundled out himself to say Dave had not meant it.

And so the scene was set for the perfect appearance by Dave in front of a less than happy government party and a delighted opposition.

Missing in action yet again was the back end of the coalition horse, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who has taken to displaying his increasing contempt at being treated increasingly with contempt by not turning up.

Earlier he had made it clear that once again unwarned about Dave’s latest attempt for party popularity, he believed the issue (if not himself) irrelevant at the moment.

And so it was a Nick-less Dave who stood to clear the confusion and announced that this was no time for a referendum.

Just to make it quite clear there might be a time - some other time but not this time - and then he moved on to the bankers.

An hour of excruciation followed as Dave equivocated his way through the minefield of his own members egged on by Labour, delighted at another afternoon of car-crash politics.

Ed Miliband had kicked off the sport by accusing the PM of a long-standing position on renegotiation; long standing because it's not getting anywhere.

Dave sweated on, his head looking increasingly big for his hair, as Tory after Tory asked him the one question he could not answer: when?

He had planned to escape after an hour when George would take his place in the dock over Barclays but that took no account of the master of ceremonies at the event, Speaker Bercow. 

He mercilessly let the session run an extra 25 minutes. And it's PMQs again on Wednesday.

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

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.