PMQs sketch: Dave's confidence in the absent Dr F

If the Chancellor's face is anything to go by, Liam Fox should check out the rent of a Parisian garr

L'Affaire Renard boarded the early train to France this morning as the Defence Secretary added Paris to the not-very-long list of capital cities where he has not met up with Adam Werrity for "transactional behaviour".

His absence from the country set a pall of gloom upon the House of Commons where members were looking forward to getting back to work after their latest break with a bit of blood sports. Instead they were forced to spend a few minutes discussing the worst unemployment figures for 17 years and a monthly rise in the jobless total of 100,000, but you could tell their heart was not in it. What they really wanted to talk about was the unemployment prospects of just one: the member for North Somerset.

Ed Milliband made a valiant attempt to speak on behalf of the millions on the dole, with the enthusiastic support of his alter-Ed, the Shadow Chancellor. But his demands for a spending boost to the economy fell on the deaf ears of the Prime Minister, who, having admitted the jobs picture was "disappointing", looked nervous but relieved that so far Labour had not mentioned absent friends.

As it was, the Government benches looked like a family outing for The Glums. Up front, were Foreign Secretary William Hague -- who has had his own previous in this regard -- and the Chancellor George Osborne, so often described as the Prime Minister's touch-stone in times of trouble. If the Chancellor's face is anything to go by, Liam Fox should check out the rents of Parisian garrets.

Talking of faces, the mood clearly affected Dave's deputy Nick who looked as if he had discovered some rather distasteful odour not too far from his nose. As he munched his lonely way through his croque monsieur at lunchtime, Dr Fox no doubt ruminated on the wise words of Harold Wilson that a week is indeed a long time in politics: a thought that must have crossed the mind of the only member of the front bench with a small smile playing about his lips. There he sat, bold as brass, hush puppies cosied up to the kitten heels of the woman who only seven days ago he accused of being as economical with the truth as some have charged the Secretary of State for Defence.

A week ago -- even a few days ago -- he was up for the chop, but there he was; Justice Secretary Ken Clarke at Prime Ministers Questions, cheek by jowl, if not cheek by cheek, with Home Secretary Theresa May, his new best friend.

Ken, who looked as if he had spent the night on the bench preparing for the occasion, chatted away with Theresa as if oblivious to the fact that once again he had been saved by "events dear boy, events".

Ed M eventually got around to the crack about Fox he had clearly been practicing all morning, accusing the PM of being more interested in protecting the Defence Secretary's job than that anyone else. Labour cheered, the Tories jeered and the Lib Dems seemed happy not to make eye contact.

As PMQs stuttered on it was clearly Labour's plan to keep the pot boiling with other references to the globe-trotting behaviour of Mr Werrity and his friend Liam. But Dave, who earlier in the year let it be known there would be no early Cabinet re-shuffle (he was always willing to make an exception for Ken), was having none of it. He said the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell -- who announced yesterday he too was off asap --should be allowed to get on with his inquiry into the affair; although no one is saying there was one, as it were.

In fact, Dave repeated his confidence in the work of Dr Fox with all of the assuredness of football club chairmen down the ages. "It is for the Prime Minister to decide if a Minister keeps his job", he said rather bravely, as if the halloo's of Fleet Street will be ignored.

As so often, it took Labour's Keith Vaz to bring the House back to reality with a question about changing the rules of royal succession "to stop boys taking precedence".

Like L'Affaire Renard, this one could run and run.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era