Parliamentary sketch: a good day for Ed Miliband

"Murdoch makes Miliband" is a headline even the News of the World would have turned down.

The door opened and in he slipped so nervous even his quiff was quaking. He stared around the room in vain for his mates, but the only big boy who had turned up was Vince Cable, and you knew he was just there for the fun.

When he took the job of Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, he imagined backstage at the opera, lunches with the luvvies, and best seats at the Olympics. Nobody mentioned Monday afternoons on your own in the House of Commons.

The chamber is normally a desert this time of the day but the promise of a spit-roast packed them in. There isn't that much flesh on Jeremy Hunt, but there was clearly going to be a lot less before MPs were finished with him.

It hadn't been a good day from the start, but then again it hasn't been a good week, or indeed a good fortnight for the man only recently described as a safe pair of hands. That safe pair was clearly shaking as he stood to defend the indefensible towards the end of yet another astonishing day in the life of "one rogue reporter", who we have discovered had many brothers and even a few sisters.

Yesterday was a good day, though, for the man who had summoned Jeremy to the House to be ritually eviscerated. Many have written that this has not been Ed Miliband's year, but even he could not have imagined getting down on his knees to thank Saint Rupert for riding to his rescue. "Murdoch makes Miliband" is a headline even the News of the World would have turned down.

But there he was, cheered on even by those who just last month would have swapped him for Jeremy. Ed spoke for England -- and maybe even for the rest of the UK -- as he demanded Rupert pack his bags and depart.

He'd kicked off this campaign earlier in the morning yesterday, as part of his successful strategy of keeping Dave and his boys on the run. In fact, so successful was it that by the time he turned up in the Commons, anybody worth anything on the Tory side had clearly found reasons to visit those parts of their departments yet to be axed.

Proceedings were slightly delayed by a rambling discourse on the "big society" by one of its inventors, Oliver Letwin, but the noises off finally persuaded even this most semi-detached of ministers that he was not the reason for a packed chamber, and that he was delaying the main bout.

It had been a day of speech and counter-speech. The government sent a series of coded messages to Rupert begging him to get them off the hook, while Rupert refused to concede that those who had spent all those years telling him how great he was had not meant it any more than he had.

Dave, by the way, had gone missing. As Ed prepared to present Jeremy with his own entrails, the Prime Minister had found a reason to be in Canary Wharf, trying to talk about something else. Ed invited Jeremy, who by now looked as it he needed a hankie, to further ruin whatever remains of his career by rubbishing his leader. He looked tempted.

As a Tory source had so succinctly put it earlier: "We had expected to eat a shit sandwich over this deal, but not a three course meal."

Elsewhere, the main players were getting on with their day. The Guardian provided enough breaking news to give the Sky News strapline hiccoughs. This produced the wonderful vignette of Kay Burley and Adam Boulton discussing the revelation that Rupert, having realised that those who said he was popular had been lying all these years, was going to run for cover for a while, and that meant Sky News would still be owned by him.

This sneaky play was just enough to allow Jeremy to back away from Ed's knife, but the Labour leader isn't finished with it yet. This is the last week of Parliament, after which Ed will go and have his nose job. It now looks like Dave will need one too -- if only to get Ed out of his patrician snout.

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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Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

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

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia