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

Photo: Getty
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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

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