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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder