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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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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