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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No, Jeremy Corbyn did not refuse to condemn the IRA. Please stop saying he did

Guys, seriously.

Okay, I’ll bite. Someone’s gotta say it, so really might as well be me:

No, Jeremy Corbyn did not, this weekend, refuse to condemn the IRA. And no, his choice of words was not just “and all other forms of racism” all over again.

Can’t wait to read my mentions after this one.

Let’s take the two contentions there in order. The claim that Corbyn refused to condem the IRA relates to his appearance on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme yesterday. (For those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a weekly political programme, hosted by Sophy Ridge and broadcast on a Sunday. Don’t say I never teach you anything.)

Here’s how Sky’s website reported that interview:

 

The first paragraph of that story reads:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised after he refused five times to directly condemn the IRA in an interview with Sky News.

The funny thing is, though, that the third paragraph of that story is this:

He said: “I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

Apparently Jeremy Corbyn has been so widely criticised for refusing to condemn the IRA that people didn’t notice the bit where he specifically said that he condemned the IRA.

Hasn’t he done this before, though? Corbyn’s inability to say he that opposed anti-semitism without appending “and all other forms of racism” was widely – and, to my mind, rightly – criticised. These were weasel words, people argued: an attempt to deflect from a narrow subject where the hard left has often been in the wrong, to a broader one where it wasn’t.

Well, that pissed me off too: an inability to say simply “I oppose anti-semitism” made it look like he did not really think anti-semitism was that big a problem, an impression not relieved by, well, take your pick.

But no, to my mind, this....

“I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

...is, despite its obvious structural similarities, not the same thing.

That’s because the “all other forms of racism thing” is an attempt to distract by bringing in something un-related. It implies that you can’t possibly be soft on anti-semitism if you were tough on Islamophobia or apartheid, and experience shows that simply isn’t true.

But loyalist bombing were not unrelated to IRA ones: they’re very related indeed. There really were atrocities committed on both sides of the Troubles, and while the fatalities were not numerically balanced, neither were they orders of magnitude apart.

As a result, specifically condemning both sides as Corbyn did seems like an entirely reasonable position to take. Far creepier, indeed, is to minimise one set of atrocities to score political points about something else entirely.

The point I’m making here isn’t really about Corbyn at all. Historically, his position on Northern Ireland has been pro-Republican, rather than pro-peace, and I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with that.

No, the point I’m making is about the media, and its bias against Labour. Whatever he may have said in the past, whatever may be written on his heart, yesterday morning Jeremy Corbyn condemned IRA bombings. This was the correct thing to do. His words were nonetheless reported as “Jeremy Corbyn refuses to condemn IRA”.

I mean, I don’t generally hold with blaming the mainstream media for politicians’ failures, but it’s a bit rum isn’t it?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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