PMQs sketch: Ed fights back

A re-energised Ed Miliband challenges David Cameron on the economy in the run up to this year's part

Can it only be ten days since MPs came back for their six week summer break and can it only be another 48 hours before they disappear until 11 October? This was but one of the questions not answered during the last PMQs of the present parliamentary session which has gone on for a fortnight.

Another slightly more important query, also unanswered, was "whither the economy?" asked by someone about whom, to borrow a phrase from infamous football pundit Andy Gray, "questions are also being asked", the leader of the Labour Party. An opinion poll reports that 49 per cent of Labour supporters cannot see Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. Last week he added to this concern by failing to pin the economic tail on David Cameron despite grim financial news. But he wasn't going to make the same mistake twice and with all the energy of someone who looked as if he had spent the night with his fingers jammed into a nearby electric socket, demanded to know what Dave's plans were.

Now Tory insiders say the Prime Minister didn't get where he is today by bothering himself with the detail and so it was at PMQs where huffing and puffing seemed the main answer to the newly re-charged Ed. You can always tell when Dave is in trouble when ruddy red starts to spread northwards out of his collar. Normally on economic matters he turns to his BF George for guidance but the Chancellor had been edged out of his regular seat by his side and sat slumped and silent with the look of someone with constipation who had forgotten where the lavatory was situated.

His face screwed up even further when Ed said he was "lashed to the mast" of economic Plan A despite the rapidly changing circumstances. "Not for the first time" added Ed in an apparent reference to claims this week by a 1990's Miss Whiplash that she and the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been bosom buddies in previous days. George has always denied that a photograph of he and Miss W which also included some Daz-type powder was anything more than a night out with the boys -- and girls.

But this wasn't the week he wanted her back in the news over a claim of phone-hacking by the News of the World during the time of Andy Coulson whom George is said to have championed as chief mouthpiece for Dave. Even his own side sniggered as the bully was bullied and Ed sat down with the self satisfied smile of someone who knew he had finally got it right, albeit a week late.

Our representatives will now spend the next three weeks at party conferences in parts of the country most would never voluntarily visit but luckily with security precautions strong enough to keep the locals, if not out of sight, at least out of touch. But despite all the security the delegates at least are allowed to get up close and personal, unless of course you're from Middlesbrough where Labour's Sir Stuart Bell has not deigned to hold a surgery for constituents for 14 years. Despite the attractiveness of Sir Stuart's approach our leaders know they have to put themselves through this annual re-affirmation process to hang on to their jobs.

PMQs is a stage lost for the Deputy Prime Minister and Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg. All he can do is sit silently, thumb in mouth, as the world swirls around him. Now and again Labour will taunt him and now and again so will the Tories leaving only Dave to give him an occasional rub if he remembers. But even he forgot yesterday as Plan A came under constant attack.

But unknown to many in the room Nick had been first out of the traps earlier with Plan C. This is a plan to get Nick out of trouble this weekend when the Lib Dems meet to review their position 16 months into the coalition. Nick and his party Cabinet colleagues know what they have got out of the deal power, salaries and chauffeur-drivens .But all the party has to look at is a ten per cent share of the popular vote enough to guarantee a return to oblivion.

Plan Clegg said 40 Government projects would apparently be advanced to face the "dangerous new phase" of economic troubles we face. Sadly a bit of rooting around in its entrails revealed the Plan C is only a promise to make bits of Plan A work on time.

And despite victory at PMQs Ed will still have a harder time than desired when he turns up in Liverpool to mark his first year in charge. He will try to distance himself from the unions which gave him power. Particularly as they head down the difficult road of strikes over public sector pensions but he cannot yet bite the hand that feeds, not to mention the one that, for the moment, still votes.

Ironically the one with the least to fear is Dave who despite Ed's battering and Plan A still seems to be swearing the Teflon top coat he must have found in Tony's old wardrobe in Number 10. Luckily for Dave the Tory Party conference has no power whatsoever. The Lib-Dems neuter his nutters leaving him and George to get on with it. Unemployment is mainly in areas where Tories travel in groups and maybe as D:ream so memorably sang: "Things can only get better".

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

Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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