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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.