PMQs review: an unhappy return for Cameron

An irritable PM failed to land any significant blows on Ed Miliband.

The first PMQs of the new parliamentary term was not one that David Cameron will want to remember. From the start, he was tetchy, irritable and, as a result, largely unpersuasive. Rather than attacking the reshuffle as a "shift to the right", Ed Miliband chose to brand it the "no change reshuffle", highlighting the PM's failure to move George Osborne.

In response, Cameron declared: "I don't want to move my Chancellor, he can't move his shadow chancellor." Given Osborne's status as the most unpopular member of the cabinet, it was an odd boast. Earlier, referring to a report by the Daily Mail's Andrew Pierce that Miliband "is the the one who always buys coffee for Balls", Cameron sarcastically remarked that it showed how "assertive and butch" the Labour leader was. It was an odd jibe that pandered to his reputation as a bully and, at a time when the country is in recession, showed a lack of seriousness.

On the economy, Cameron pointed out that private sector employment had risen by 900,000 in the last two years (a misleading claim since 320,000 of those jobs were created under Labour) but with forecasters agreed that unemployment will rise significantly next year as public sector job cuts intensify, he won't be able to use this boast for long.

Another notable moment came at the end when Labour MP John McDonnell, who represents Hayes and Harlington, asked Cameron to confirm that there will be no third runway at Heathrow while he leads his party. Cameron replied that he wanted to reach cross-party agreement on the future of aviation policy, but added: "I will not be breaking my manifesto pledge". It was the clearest confirmation we've had that while no third runway will be built this parliament, it remains a serious option for the future.

David Cameron faced Ed Miliband today at the first PMQs of the new parliamentary term. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.