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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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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