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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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