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

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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