PMQs review: Cameron turns Brown and Miliband turns red

Cameron is sounding ever more like Gordon Brown, while Miliband is turning left.

As the economy continues to struggle, David Cameron is sounding ever more like his predecessor. Asked by Ed Miliband at today's PMQs to respond to growth of just 0.5 per cent in the last 12 months, Cameron replied that any growth should be welcomed amid the "global storm in the world economy". The man who once mocked Gordon Brown for blaming "global conditions" for weak growth now steals his lines.

Miliband went on to ask his favourite question: does the Prime Minister know how many businesses have been helped by the [insert failing growth policy]? In the case of the Business Growth Fund, which has five offices and 50 staff, the answer was just two. From there, as Miliband raised the subject of FTSE 100 directors' pay, the exchanges descended into a noisy squabble over who had taxed the rich the most, over who had been meanest to the bankers.

Cameron pointed to the rise in capital gains tax, the new levy on non-domiciles and the tax deal agred with Switzerland. Miliband reminded him that it was the last Labour government that introduced the 50p tax rate, which the Tories want to abolish. His full-throated support for the top rate (the fourth highest in the world) will raise eyebrows in Westminster but never forget that, as poll after poll has confirmed, most voters favour it.

That wasn't the only moment when Ed sounded redder than he has for some time. For the first time, he echoed the language of the St Paul's protesters, accusing Cameron of always favouring the 1 per cent over "the 99 per cent". It was further evidence that the Labour leader believes the political spectrum is shifting leftwards. If he is right (as we must hope is), the political rewards could be great.

It was left to Alistair Darling to sound a sombre note and remind the House that the Greek crisis is entering its terrifying endgame. As he urged Cameron to persuade the G20 to produce more details on the alarmingly vague rescue package, events in Westminster suddenly felt a lot smaller.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution