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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle