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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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred