PMQs sketch: as Dave got louder, Ed got happier

One after another, the PM's many enemies rose to their feet.

He could have said: "plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose", but being Dennis Skinner: "the posh boys are back, let’s have a General Election," seemed more in keeping; and so summer came to an end.

It was meant to be the emergence of the new no-nonsense Dave and his new no-nonsense Cabinet at the first session of Prime Minister's Questions for eight weeks. But it was business as usual within seconds as the first of the Prime Minister’s many enemies rose to his feet eager to wipe any sense of self-satisfaction off his face.

It is rather unfortunate for Dave that this list of detractors should include Speaker Bercow but the mutual self-loathing between the two seems only to grow as this Parliament continues. And so it was that the Speaker, unable to voice his own views on his one-time leader, called on Dennis, himself no slouch on getting up the patrician snout of the PM, to launch the first PMQs of the autumn.

With his summer tan already reddening, Dave sought to joke his way out of the clutches of the Bolsover beast only for Bercow to strike again by summoning the PM’s most vocal Tory critic, Nadine Dorries, to second the welcome back motion. Nadine, whose place in the Tory firmament was fixed when she described Dave and Chancellor George as two arrogant posh boys, only has to stand up to get Dave going - and she did and he did.

You got the sense that things might not go as planned even as the Prime Minister turned up in the Commons to find himself squeezed onto the front bench between Nick Clegg and Francis “jerrycan in the garage” Maude. The summer break had clearly done nothing to change the Deputy Prime Minister’s intention to use PMQs to demonstrate his continued disengagement in coalition affairs. In fact if any artist has copyrighted the title “study in indifference” a suitable subject can be found each Wednesday noon loitering on a bench down Whitehall.

And as if to drive home the sense of gloom and doom, slumped next to Indifference was the new Leader of the House of Commons, Andrew Lansley, until yesterday master of the chaos called the NHS. Mr Lansley was "promoted" to his new job so that he could use the skills at people-management and problem solving, so ably demonstrably during his two and a half years as Health Secretary said an unnamed but, one assumes, embarrassed Tory spokesperson. Mr Lansley was clearly controlling the sense of elation he felt at his promotion despite occasional prodding from his neighbour, "Thrasher" Mitchell, the newly appointed Chief Whip.

Mr Mitchell obtained the sobriquet "Thrasher" during his time at Rugby School, literary home of Flashman, a description often bestowed on Dave, where he was known as a stern disciplinarian, whatever that means in public school speak. And perhaps it was his presence or the threat of being caught in the Beast’s baleful glare, which seemed to reduce some of the newly promoted to stupefaction. Cabinet newcomers Maria Miller and Theresa Villiers seemed to cling to each for support as they realised the full horror of being within a sword's length of the serried ranks of pre-lunch Labour MPs.

But this was as nothing compared to the look of confused terror on the face of the man who last night said he had "the job of his dreams" taking over Health. If it is true that Chancellor George had a hand in all the appointments then he must really have it in for hapless Jeremy Hunt, whose appointment as Health Secretary left the Commons and him struggling to find a new definition for surprised. At least he’s had those Murdoch months as Culture Secretary to practice his rictus grin and it was firmly fixed to his face as the opposition rubbed its collective hands in anticipation of the sport to come.

But that is in the future and Speaker Bercow had not finished sticking it to Dave and announced it was time for Labour leader Ed Miliband to have his go. Dave had turned up at the Commons sporting that sort of posh tan you get from a lifetime of exposure to the sun with expensive regularity, whereas Ed has the look of someone who has either been to Sicily or a sanitarium. But with all the assurance of someone who had his opponent on the run for the past six months, Ed pronounced the reshuffle irrelevant and the basics unchanged.

As Dave got louder and louder, Ed got happier and happier. "The crimson tide is back,” he declared as Dave’s discomfort spread upwards from his neck to his forehead. "The paralympics spoke for Britain", he added, to the equal discomfort of Chancellor George, squirming at the memory of being  booed during his appearance at the games. Dave tried a dig at the other Ed, the shadow chancellor Ed M did not want, but the Labour leader pointed to Ken Clarke, now minister without ministry in the Cabinet, and accused the PM of giving him a job-share with George.

Ken smiled with the smile of someone who had seen it before , done it before , done it again and still had the chauffeur-driven car to take him home tonight. And even as Ken grinned, Ed B, remembering Dave had promoted him to the "most annoying man in politics today", snapped back to form and made his contribution to the welcome being provided to the PM.

The rest of the session seemed almost lost on the PM as he no doubt made plans for serious chats with Thrasher once the humiliation was over. MPs did pause to listen politely as one of their number reported that Save the Children thought matters so severe that they have today launched their first ever appeal to help children in Britain!

But with throats cleared and lunch almost ready the Speaker called time on today’s bear-baiting. He should check under his car tonight, and tomorrow night, and the night after that ...

David Cameron chairs the first cabinet meeting following the reshuffle. Photograph: 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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.