PMQs sketch: Large without Little

Cameron without Clegg

In 20 days time MPs, just back from their Whitsun break, will pack in work for the summer and take two months off. Yesterday many of them appeared to be in training.

The benches are normally packed for the weekly bun-fight which masquerades as Prime Ministers Questions, but political ennui if not men's quarter-finals dayat Wimbledon -- and you know how bad the traffic can be there -- appeared to have set in. (And then of course there are the strikes).

Even before it began, the whispers went up about the most notable absentee: "Where is he", was being mouthed as fingers pointed towards the Government front bench.

It was Large without Little for here was Dave without Nick. We knew they hadn't been getting on and they had said they would send time apart, but seeing it in reality was a shocker.

Where Nick normally sat slumped despondently in his seat, sallow-faced waiting for his weekly diet of insults from all sides of the house, including his own, now sat a vision in pink -- the Secretary of State for Wales.

In fact, as you looked down the Government benches you saw it as Dave had hoped it would be last May -- just Tories in sight. Even Ken Clarke, still on parole for his continued indiscretions, lounged expansively and awake just out of distance from the Prime Minister. If you stared into the murk you could make out the ghostly figures of Cable and Huhne edging their way towards the exit.

Nick, we discovered later, had been sent to Birmingham -- which in these cost-conscious days must be a little bit closer than Coventry .

But if Nick is no longer reliable at least Dave knows that his real BF George, aka the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will always be there. And so it was today.

The Prime Minister has had such a hard time at PMQs in recent weeks at the hands of Labour leader, Ed Miliband, that George positions himself as if prepared to rugby tackle Dave if he tries to do a runner.

Ed has developed a neat technique of swotting up on some of the more mathematical details of Government policies and demanding the haples PM answer them. This technique of course goes against the historical grain of PMQs when questions could be safely ignored and answers given to things you had not asked about. After all, it's not called Prime Ministers Answers.

Ed has managed to bring out the bully in Dave through this approach, causing concern on the Tory side at the ease with which their leader can be wound up. To this end George is stationed by his side to provide comfort, backbone, and pass on any facts he manages to pick up from his Cabinet chums in the brief periods of respite from Ed's attempts to poke his eye out.

And so the stage was set yesterday for another mauling and Dave looked out of sorts even before Ed got to his feet..... but then it all went a bit wrong, maybe this time for Ed.

With 750,000 voters due out on strike tomorrow Dave knew he was in for a hard time and decided to kick off PMQs with a restatement of his "no need for strikes" position, which met with ritual baying from his side of the house.

Ed shot to his feet and straight into a detailed question of redundancies in the National Health Service. Dave stumbled and flapped, George tightened his grip and Ed was at him again about detail and the NHS.

The "crimson tide", as Labour calls Dave 's rapid colour change above the collar, was clearly in evidence as the Prime Minister had no worthwhile reply to this forensic examination.

But even as he flustered, a sudden light came on: Ed was not going to mention the strikes, and Dave was off the hook.

All week Ed has been polishing up his "squeezed middle" credentials saying the strikes should not go ahead. He re-enforced the message with his own Clause Four moment, or at least Clause Four hint, by talking up cutting back union power in the Party

But biting off the hand that feeds you is one thing, but being seen to enjoy it is another entirely -- and so with real deal less than 24 hours away he decided to gamble on having said enough for now. He hopes voters will remember he was against the strike, but the strikers remember he wasn't as against it as Dave.

So to the obvious pleasure of the Government benches, and the equally obvious confusion of his own side, he decided to keep schtum.

"What the whole country will have noticed is, that at a time when people are worrying about strikes, he can't ask about strikes because he is in the pocket of the trade unions," said the PM, with all the pleasure of someone who has just found a gift horse opposite him with its mouth wide open.

There is a by-election tomorrow in the Inverclyde constituency in Scotland where Labour is defending at 14,000 majority -- repeat, 14,000 majority.

Friday should be interesting.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Beware, hard Brexiteers - Ruth Davidson is coming for you

The Scottish Conservative leader is well-positioned to fight. 

Wanted: Charismatic leader with working-class roots and a populist touch who can take on the Brexiteers, including some in the government, and do so convincingly.

Enter Ruth Davidson. 

While many Tory MPs quietly share her opposition to a hard Brexit, those who dare to be loud tend to be backbenchers like Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan. 

By contrast, the Scottish Conservative leader already has huge credibility for rebuilding her party north of the border. Her appearances in the last days of the EU referendum campaign made her a star in the south as well. And she has no qualms about making a joke at Boris Johnson’s expense

Speaking at the Institute of Directors on Monday, Davidson said Brexiteers like Nigel Farage should stop “needling” European leaders.

“I say to the Ukip politicians, when they chuckle and bray about the result in June, grow up,” she declared. “Let us show a bit more respect for these European neighbours and allies.”

Davidson is particularly concerned that Brexiteers underestimate the deeply emotional and political response of other EU nations. 

The negotiations will be 27 to 1, she pointed out: “I would suggest that macho, beer swilling, posturing at the golf club bar isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

At a time when free trade is increasingly a dirty word, Davidson is also striking in her defence of the single market. As a child, she recalls, every plate of food on the table was there because her father, a self-made businessman, had "made stuff and sold it abroad". 

She attacked the Daily Mail for its front cover branding the judges who ruled against the government’s bid to trigger Article 50 “enemies of the people”. 

When the headline was published, Theresa May and Cabinet ministers stressed the freedom of the press. By contrast, Davidson, a former journalist, said that to undermine “the guardians of our democracy” in this way was “an utter disgrace”. 

Davidson might have chosen Ukip and the Daily Mail to skewer, but her attacks could apply to certain Brexiteers in her party as well. 

When The Staggers enquired whether this included the Italy-baiting Foreign Secretary Johnson, she launched a somewhat muted defence.

Saying she was “surprised by the way Boris has taken to the job”, she added: “To be honest, when you have got such a big thing happening and when you have a team in place that has been doing the preparatory work, it doesn’t make sense to reshuffle the benches."

Nevertheless, despite her outsider role, the team matters to Davidson. Part of her electoral success in Scotland is down the way she has capitalised on the anti-independence feeling after the Scottish referendum. If the UK heads for a hard Brexit, she too will have to fend off accusations that her party is the party of division. 

Indeed, for all her jibes at the Brexiteers, Davidson has a serious message. Since the EU referendum, she is “beginning to see embryos of where Scotland has gone post-referendum”. And, she warned: “I do not think we want that division.”

 

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.