PMQs sketch: hypocrisy is the name of the game

Until this scandal, shaking Murdoch's hand was the ambition of any aspiring PM. Now they want to sha

If hypocrisy had a smell it could have been bottled and sold by the gallon from the House of Commons shop today. It might have gone down well with the slices of cold revenge and chips that were being served on the MPs' lunchtime menu.

Many thought this day would never come. Prime Minister Dave had just hoped it never would. Could it really be just three weeks ago that he and Ed and others had taken Rupert's shilling, or at least his champagne and canapés, at the News International Summer Party? Was this the one they flew across oceans and delayed holidays to meet? Could this really be the same Rupert none of them had really known, none of them had really liked and certainly none of them wanted anything more to do with? Yes, it can be revealed: it is the same rascal. Thus the stage was set for a sight as rare in British politics as a nipple-free Sun: cross-party agreement on a plan to get him.

It was an exciting occasion anyway, because it marked the last Prime Ministers Questions before the long vacation. MPs will disappear next week until October, apart from a few days in September recently written into the script in case the electorate get the hump.

So it was that Dave entered the lion's den with the look of a man who knew the game was up and a thrashing was about to be administered. He was flanked by best friend and spare back-bone George, grim-faced at the trials to come, and his loyal deputy Nick, his annual sojourn to Spain clearly on his mind but with the demeanour of someone who at last had found himself on the right side...Ed Milliband's.

When Ed stood up, the cheering was so loud that observers thought someone else had come into the chamber. Gone was Ed the Unready, and in his place the new, improved, almost unrecognisable Ed -- The Leader of the Labour Party version. The last seven days have achieved for him what the last 11 months did not, and you could see it writ large on his face.

You knew Dave was in for it when Ed began by inviting the Prime Minister to agree his neighbor and dining friend Rebekah Brooks should quit as Rupert's presence-on-earth at News International. And to agree that Rupert should abandon plans to take over BSkyB.

Dave, who has changed his tune so much in recent days that he could form his own choir ,got so flustered that he said Rebekah had already resigned. But everyone knew that this was just the preamble and that Ed has shown recently that he is finally learning the lessons of being a leader: once your opponent is down, keep kicking him.

George, the Chancellor, who apparently holds several degrees in bullying, could only whisper sweet nothings into the battered ear of his best friend as Ed, egged on by those on his own side who would happily have dumped him last month, turned, as Dave knew he would, to the unanswerable Andy question.

It will be a set text in political lectures for years to come. Was the Prime Minister of the day right to employ as his conduit to the nation's thinking someone who had made a career of examining the bedclothes of famous people? Further, why had he ignored the warnings of a queue of people, apparently long enough to line Whitehall, who believed the appointment scored 15 on the 1 to 10 scale of unfortunate decisions.

Had he been told Andy was not necessarily kosher asked Ed, confident that the PM could only squirm on the hook. The House came down, as Sir Bruce would say, as Dave denied anyone had given him good reason why the former editor of the News of the World, who resigned after a member of his staff was jailed for phone-hacking and denied he knew anything about it, should not then have been appointed his mouthpiece in Number 10.

Unanimity, the watchword at the start of the day, had lasted all of four minutes in the House of Commons. (Speaker Bercow, slightly subdued since his discovery last week that he is about to go on loan to Afghanistan, almost bounced out of his box at the volume of end of term noise.)

Of course what Dave could not say is that Andy also got the job because he was pals with, or at least knew the phone number of he whose name had ostensibly united them all in the chamber that day -- the Sun King himself, Rupert Murdoch.

Ed himself squirmed a little when Dave pointed out that his new mouthpiece Tom Baldwin also worked for Rupert for many years on the Times. But of course there now exists a new kind of UK political time: AM and PM. Ante Murdoch and Post Murdoch. AM time ended when the depth of the News of the World crisis became clear. Until then shaking Rupert warmly by the hand was the ambition of any politician hoping to become Prime Minister. PM time means the same people queuing up to shake him warmly by the throat.

Rupert has a long reach and a long memory, and this is a multi-billion pound deal. There are no rather rotund ladies singing yet. Watch this space.

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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.