PMQs sketch: Tory tribalism saves the day for Dave

Cameron bashing is a sport restricted to Tory backbenchers, it's not open to the great-unwashed oppo

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of Prime Minister's Questions to the democratic process in the United Kingdom and so it seems only right to remark on the grey streaks spotted in the hair of the present incumbent.

This is not to trivialise PMQs since its participants need no help from outsiders iIn this regard but to choose on this birthday from the very short list of subjects of interest which actually occurred.

As ever it was meant to be different .The disemboweling of Dave had been on the menu following his hanging and drawing over Europe on Monday by the many Tory backbenchers who suspect that despite attending Eton he has friends of a non-British variety.

Half of his party had even come back early from dinner for the chance to give him a good kicking over his failure to sort out Johnny Foreigner, not to mention the hump most of them had at not getting on to the Government payroll because of Dave's dalliance with the Lib-Dems.

Now he was due in front of them again before setting off to Brussels for the latest last-ditch meeting of European leaders working out which country is next to go bust.

It was therefore perhaps no surprise that Dave's manly mane should find itself showing signs of political pressure as he turned up in the place of his most recent humiliation for a second unwelcome helping of verbal violence.

He looked unsuprisingly strained as he took his seat for the gala performance. In front of him his enemies in the Labour Party, behind him his enemies in the Tory Party and beside him Nick Clegg. And then he stood up -- and his side cheered and cheered and cheered.

Had they sobered up since Monday night? Had they been told off at home? Had Dave and his enforcers now got all their names and addresses?

Whatever the reason he stood somewhat stunned as the Tory benches exploded with the sort of enthusiasm normally only seen when the Government adopts the latest campaign from the pages of the Daily Mail.

Equally stunned was the Leader of the Opposition who had clearly entered the chamber on a high having spent 48 hours watching the Tory Party doing what Labour excels in -- cutting its own throat.

Fervent Ed-watchers will be forgiven if they find the references to the hair colour of the PM irrelevant to today's proceedings but that is surely only because little mention is made of the grey spot painted onto the front of his hair to give him more gravitas.

He had sat desperate to be let at his foe, excitedly clutching his papers packed with the quotes that showed the Prime Minister was not just out of touch with his party but with his coalition, not to mention the country.

Had not half his party demanded a new deal on Europe and had not the Deputy Prime Minister ruled this out ."Who speaks for the Government?" Ed demanded to know.

"Well, not you", was the clear answer from the Tory back benches as they made it clear that Dave-devouring is a sport restricted to fully paid up members of their party and not open to the great-unwashed opposite.

Ed and his advisers had clearly not factored Tory tribalism into their running order and once again the Tory leader sprang free from the trap.

Indeed newly emboldened Dave said he and his Deputy did share many of the same views leaving Nick with that hapless grin that marks so many of his non-speaking performances at the weekly event.

Ed was "a complete mug" on Europe charged the PM as his own side looked likely to have collective heart attacks of over-excitement. It was as if Monday had never happened. Dave sat down in relief .Ed sat down in confusion.

It may be worth pointing out that this year not only marks the 50th anniversary of the launching of PMQS but also of Grecian 2000. This is not, as you might think, a reference to the Greek sovereign debt but to a hair product. Dave and Ed may want to enquire further.

 

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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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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