PMQs sketch: "Calm down, Dave"

When Ed finally got around to the economy, the PM could only flounder loudly.

Bear-baiting was outlawed by Parliament in 1835, but MPs are always prepared to make an exception for their leaders, and none more so than for David Cameron.

Dapper Dave may well be the recipient of years of expensive grooming at Eton College -- not to mention the added advantages of the Bullingdon Club -- but none of that can prepare one for the onslaught of the oiks.

The Great Unwashed, as some might refer to the Parliamentary Labour Party, was out in force at Prime Ministers Questions, for what turned out to be a Son, if not very Lumiere, performance.

To be fair, they had come to feast on the remains of Liam Fox but in his absence were more than happy to bite bits out of his leader.

Having just agreed to take an extra five days off next month -- in return for having to break into their summer hols to discuss the vexed question of riots and burning inner-cities in their constituencies -- the whole house was clearly over-excited.

There are, as we know, many Tories for whom Dave's patrician leadership is as popular as the Dale Farm travellers, but manners dictate that the right to get at him at PMQs lies with Labour, who have learned how easy it can be to wind him up when he is on the back foot, or indeed any foot.

Ed Miliband got proceedings off with a belated attempt to breath life into the ex-Defence Secretary's corpse, having ducked the opportunity last week. Dave said that the bus had already left the depot but by then the Labour benches were in full throat.

The Prime Minister has the unfortunate habit of reddening from the neck upwards when faced with uncomfortable facts and this vertical tanning was obvious to all at PMQs. Labour MPs call it the Crimson Tide. This is the cry that went up from the terraces as they realised they had their man on the run.

Sitting stony-faced throughout, the front-benchers are all aware that video tapes of reactions are available for Dave to study later. George Osborne, no mean slouch himself on the bullying front, could only grimace as the pitch and volume of the PM's answers increased in mathematical proportion to the baying from the other side. Other ministers tried best to make it clear that this was nothing to do with them.

New Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond studiously made notes, no doubt reflecting on the fact that six people have held his new post in the last seven years. Further down the front, the majestic figure of Eric Pickles, occupying the space of at least two lesser mortals, was still basking in his victory of the dustbins. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley ominously couldn't find a seat, whilst the Deputy Prime Minister was giving a whole new meaning to absent friends. 

To be fair to Dave, volume and face-colour apart, he did do enough to remind Ed that he had chosen the wrong subject to kick off his attack, but by now, argument was out of the window.

No sooner had Ed sat down to prepare for his second strike than the enemy-within wing of his own party was up asking the question that dare not speak its name -- what about the Europe referendum? This was a timely reminder to Dave that a week is a long time in politics, even if it hasn't happened yet. Next Thursday, we are due a debate in Europe, already backed by 40 Tory MPs ,which includes a demand for a referendum now . But that is next week's row ,and back in the Commons, Ed was back on his feet.

Last week as the Fox debacle picked up speed, the Labour leader decided to lead off on the economy. This week, as inflation hit a 20 year peak, he chose to go with Fox, but when he did finally get around to the economy, Dave could only flounder loudly. "We have the highest inflation in Europe apart from Estonia," said Ed, and the Labour side threw its full verbal weight behind the Estonians.

Obviously concerned that Estonians could hear PMQs just by opening their windows, Speaker Bercow accused the opposition of "organised barracking", leaving observers wondering what barracking sounded like when disorganised.

By now, Dave had his sound button on full volume and the crimson tide was threatening to spill over on to George. 

"Calm down dear," was the delighted cry from the Labour benches. The Eds grinned in rare unison, Angela Eagle, recipient of that very insult from Dave just a few weeks ago, could only smile in satisfaction. Where was Liam Fox when you needed him, Dave must have thought.

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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.