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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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