PMQs sketch: Cameron's awkward half hour

Even before it began you knew that Dave was not only without a paddle but probably without a creek.

The high moral ground in the House of Commons has been somewhat harder to climb in recent years, particularly for those who claimed it as a second home.

But it was suddenly back within the reach of all yesterday thanks to the News of the World for doing what it does best -- exposing a scandal at the heart of the establishment: itself.

In one fell swoop MPs shook off three years of being accused of having their hands in their constituents pockets to unite in condemnation of at least some of their accusers.

Indeed even before the Prime Minister arrived for PMQs you could hear them sharpening the guillotine, giving the wheels of the tumbril a bit of a polish and getting their high horses out of the stables.

There is nothing quite like a common enemy to unite MPs of all parties and as enemies go there cannot be many more common than the News of the World.

Could it only be days since the luckiest if them had quaffed champagne at the summer party of News International and shook hands, if lucky, with the NoW's owner Rupert Murdoch -- not to mention his presence on earth, or at least London, the flame-haired CEO Rebekah Brooks?

All of this was to be out behind them in defence of the people's outrage over phone-hacking, bungling by the police and general lying to all and sundry.

Even before PMQs began you knew that Dave was not only without a paddle but probably without a creek.

It was against that background that Ed Miliband knew he was onto a winner even before he got to his feet .This was particularly helpful because before Rupert rode to the rescue the Labour leader had been having another lean week.

Having had one survey which said 25 per cent of the population thought he was his brother David another put his personal rating among voters as lower than that of Ian Duncan Smith. That finding so worried Tory Party managers at the time that IDS was dumped.

Ed therefore could afford to look relieved as he asked the Prime Minister to "speak for the people" and agree to an inquiry into the allegations of phone-hacking, which have now spread from the rich and famous to the ordinary and vulnerable.

The Prime Minister, only hours back from a derailed PR trip to Afghanistan, trumped Ed by immediately promising two inquiries -- one into the press and its culture, and the second into the scale of backhanders to the police.

But even as Dave and Ed were doing their Mr Statesman performances and the House was doing its ritual braying in approval, all knew this was not why we were here.

As silkily as he could Ed said surely the BSkyB take-over by Rupert should now be referred elsewhere since the hacking scandal raised all sorts of issues.

Dave knew it was coming and knew he had no answer, or at least not one that anyone on his side had managed to come up with in the previous 12 hours.

His voice rose in direct proportion to his skin colour as he fumbled his way through all he had been given to say so far. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was acting in a "quasi-judicial" way over the BskyB bid he blustered.

At this the Commons camera cut to the elfin figure of Mr Hunt who was sitting, one assumes quasi-judicially, just down the front bench from the PM with the nervous look of someone to whom the parcel has just been passed as the music stops.

Now that he had the PM rocking with the punches Ed moved in again, this time demanding Dave support his call for CEO Rebekah to go.

This is a tricky one for the PM since she and he are close friends and some say he helped persuade Rupert to keep her on earlier in the year.

Ed knows all that, but has the added insurance of not being far enough up the food chain during Labour's time in office to get to know the Murdoch clan as closely as Tony did.

Having failed to get News International's endorsement for his own election he has nothing to lose, at the moment, from taking them on.

By now Dave had the pallor of someone with a serious claim against the tanning salon he had just left. George Osborne, usually his spare back-bone during PMQs looked equally lost, and Deputy PM Nick Clegg could only sit back and enjoy another week out of the firing line.

The Prime Minister managed to non-answer the question about friend Rebekah's future in a way which left everyone, probably including her, confused.

But the agony and the ecstasy was still not over because Ed had still to mention the "C" word: Coulson, Andy.

It is six months since Andy quit as Dave's Alistair Campbell because the phone-hacking inquiry was apparently putting him off his stroke. It is now alleged that Andy, former editor of the newspaper that dare not now speak its name, may have played some part in transferring funds from the coffers of the NoW to the pension plans of certain policemen.

"Didn't Dave regret taking him on?" asked Ed. "You're not kidding," Dave didn't say.

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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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.