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

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.