PMQs sketch: Dave's Darling

"He's on another planet," said Ed of the PM, with the look of a man who wished he could join him.

Those who have yet to buy a copy of Alistair Darling's book on his time with the Great Sulk should rush out and get one, because it is the only way to make sense of the farce that was the first Prime Minister's Questions since MPs took themselves off in July for their several holidays.

With the economy on its uppers, inflation on the increase and growth shrinking, we all knew what the hot topic of the day would be, as Ed (fresh from his nose job) set about Dave (poshly sunburnt; despite having to pop back to town for a few days because of the riots and Libya). Indeed, Ed had to be up for it following recent opinion polls showing Labour just a couple of percentage points ahead of the Tories, despite almost a year under his care.

And so Ed let Dave have it with both barrels: Why is the Government holding elections for police commissioners in November instead of next May?

Earlier, Dave had been seen in earnest last-minute conversations with Chancellor George (equally sun-tanned), being briefed on what tack to take when Ed launched his economy broadside; but this one seemed to stun him.

Indeed, the Commons fell silent for a moment as Members on all sides considered the import of this, the first question to the Prime Minister after such a tumultuous period in our national affairs.

The real reason for this question and the smile it brought to Dave's face had been spotted tucked under his arm by an eagle-eyed reporter as he entered the Chamber: a well-thumbed copy of Alistair's book.

The curse of the Ali/Alastairs is becoming a common thread in recent Labour history, and Alistair D's intervention seems to be at least as unhelpful as many of those attributed to Alastair Campbell.

In the latest Alastair missive, details of his tortuous relationship with Gordon Brown and the Stasi-like behaviour of his team, led by enforcer Ed Balls, are revealed; not unlike the revelations of the books by the other A. It should be remembered that Ed M was praised for his bravery by keeping Ed B away from the Treasury brief when he first took over as leader. But that bold plan was quickly dropped when Alan Johnson, Ed's odd choice for Shadow Chancellor, fell by the wayside.

Just to make matters worse, Darling recounts that Labour's 2009 budget was conceived in chaos and resulted in a complete mess of an economic policy; a bit of a bummer, since this is the plan the Opposition is presently sticking to.

With Ed the Enforcer sitting just a couple of seats away, it was soon obvious that Ed the Leader had decided to bottle it. After the questions on police commissioners came questions on waiting lists, and Cameron's grin only widened. "He's on another planet" said Ed, with the look of a man who wished he could join him.

This let Dave in with the one answer to the Labour Leader he hadn't expected to utter: "He doesn't dare in six questions to mention the economy". Even Nick smiled at that one.

With party conference season just around the corner, MPs back from their hols on Monday will be off again in just ten days for another three weeks of naval gazing. Dave must be delighted that despite presiding over the worst economic crisis for 60 years, he is still personally popular and his party almost up there with Labour in the polls. All he has to do is persuade the recidivists that the Lib Dems aren't getting away with blue murder. Nick has to persuade his lot they are.

Ed Miliband should have had the easiest job of all, but with the recent polls and today's performance, is the jury out again?

As Bill Clinton said: "It's the economy, stupid."

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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.