PMQs sketch: This was the crimson tide personified

Ed M's questions turned the perma-tanned PM into a red-faced bad temper on legs.

The Prime Minister's plea for people to bring their children to work on strike day did not fall on deaf ears in the House of Commons, which packed both Government and Opposition benches with them for a juvenile version of PMQs.

As the nation's pubic sector workers froze their bits off in demonstrations all over the country, this group on the public payroll gathered in the warmth of the Chamber to offer either support, or a Baroness-Trumpington-salute to the strikers.

You could tell the world had moved on -- in the 24 hours since they, and we, were told we were on our way to hell in a handcart -- by the absence from the event of yesterday's chief-gloomster, Chancellor George. One wondered if he had taken advantage of the lack of passport control staff to flee the country and certainly, the presence in his place on a school day of chief secretary Danny Alexander only added to the air of unreality.

But the real import of the absence of George was to be seen on the effect to his friend the Prime Minister, suddenly on his own in front of the brutish hordes of Labour with only Danny and Nick Clegg to hold him up -- the job usually done by George with a strategically placed hand.

With his best pal apparently on the run, Dave lost it big time and so spectacularly that at one stage it looked as if the Prime Minister's head would be delivered literally to the strikers.

Lift Off came within minutes of the whistle blowing. All eyes were on Ed Miliband who had found himself in difficulties of his own in recent weeks, trying to condemn whilst supporting the strikers.

Ed did it cleverly again today by managing to be on both sides at once, taking the moral high-ground. Dave is not a big fan of cleverness, and proceeded to greet it by transforming himself in front of our eyes from a normal perma-tanned PM into a red-faced finger-stabbing bad temper on legs. He was aided in this endeavour by the massed voices of the Tory choir up on the terraces, who love it when their man shows his true boot-boy colours.

Ed was "irresponsible, left-wing and weak," said Dave, as he reminded the Labour leader he had been less than consistent on the strike. Obviously stung by the charge of being left-wing, Ed drew his own finger from its scabbard and tried to poke Dave's eye out over the Despatch Box.

The Labour side accompanied their leader's cut and thrust with further cries of "crimson tide"; the description flung at the PM as new and deeper hues emerge from his shirt collar as his over-excitement increased.

This was enough to bring Speaker Bercow to his feet for the first of many occasions during the session, as he accused the Tory side of "orchestrated barracking" -- a charge that made Labour increase its volume clearly seeking the same compliment.

Both leaders continued to swap insults with the Prime Minister, happy to point out more than once that the pension proposals leading to today's strikes had been drawn up by former Labour Minister Lord Hutton.

Any hope that the PM might get a grip on himself totally disappeared when his personal red rag Ed Balls joined in by calling on him to calm down. Had he not had guy ropes secretly attached, Dave might clearly have left the floor at that moment. With Ed B's head nodding so furiously that you feared it too could take off, Ed M said Plan A had failed; the poorest were picking up the bills, and never again could he say we were all in this together.

There were rare moments of light relief. A historical time-warp called Jacob Rees-Mogg got up to languidly opine that Dave should follow Ronnie Reagan's modern approach to trade unions and sack the strikers. Even Dave ignored him.

The PM revealed his own staff were helping break the strike leaving some wondering if George really had been smuggled out of the country. By now the Speaker had been on his feet more times than the Leader of the Opposition, and so PMQs destined to end at 12.30pm to give MPs a chance to get as decent seat for lunch.

Amber Rudd got in just before the menus to ask Cameron to condemn Labour MPs who he said had asked permission of the GMB union to cross a picket line outside the Commons to attend PMQs.

Outside, the strikers got out their sandwiches and wondered what all the noise had been about.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn has lost his NEC majority - and worse could be to come

The NEC promises to be a thorn in the Labour leader's side.

Jeremy Corbyn has lost his majority on the party’s ruling national executive committee, after a longstanding demand of the Welsh and Scottish parties sees the introduction of two further appointed posts on the NEC, one each of Kezia Dugdale, leader of Scottish Labour and Carwyn Jones, the Welsh First Minister and leader of the Welsh party. 

It means that, unlike during his first year as leader, Corbyn will not have a majority on the NEC. Corbyn acquired a small majority on the party’s ruling body at last year’s Labour conference, when Community, which represents workers in steel and the third sector, was voted off in favour of the BFAWU, which represents bakers. Added to the replacement of Hilary Benn with Rebecca Long-Bailey, that gave Corbyn a small but fairly reliable majority on the NEC. (It also led to Bex Bailey, the diminutive rightwinger who sat as Youth Rep, being dubbed “Rebecca Short-Bailey” by Corbynsceptic trade union officials.) 

In practice, the new NEC is now “hung”, as Corbynsceptics sacrificed their new majority last night when they elected Glenis Wilmott, leader of the European parliamentary Labour party, as chair. Corbyn’s opponents judge that controlling the chair, which rules on procedure and interpret’s the NEC’s rules, is worth more than a majority of one. 

Divisions will hinge upon the NEC’s swing voters – Alice Perry, who is elected by councilors, Ann Black, elected by members, and Keith Vaz, the chair of BAME Labour, and the new Welsh Labour representative, appointed by Jones. Corbyn may, therefore, have cause to regret fighting quite so hard to resist the changes this time.

“All we’re asking is that we should have the same rights as Jeremy, who appoints three,” Jones told me on Monday. At an acrimonious meeting at the NEC, Jones – who has been campaigning for the change since he became leader and has already been rebuffed back in 2011 – told Corbyn that the Welsh leadership had been kept waiting “too long” for the same rights as the Westminster party. Jones, unlike Dugdale, remained neutral in the leadership race. He explained to me that “I’d expect [London] to stay out of our elections, so you’ve got to return the favour”. 

Dugdale takes a different view, and, I’m told, feels that Corbyn’s allies in Scotland have been manoeuvring against her since she became leader. She has appointed herself to sit on the NEC, where she will be a consistent vote against Corbyn.

But worse may be to come for Corbyn in the trade union section. An underappreciated aspect of Labour politics is the impact of labour politics – ie, the jostling for power and members between affliated trade unions. What happens at the Trade Union Congress doesn’t stay there, and there has long been a feeling, fairly or unfairly, that Unite – Britain’s largest trade union – throws its weight around at the TUC. 

A desire to “cut Len down to size” is likely to make itself felt in Labour.The merger of Unite with Ucatt, the construction union, takes Unite’s share of the seats on the 33-person NEC to five including the treasurer Diana Holland.  Although Unite’s total membership is larger, it affliates fewer members to the party than Usdaw, the shopworkers’ union, and the GMB do. Usdaw is a reliable block to Corbyn on the NEC and the GMB is at odds with the leadership over Trident and fracking. 

All of which means that Corbyn’s path to wide-ranging rule changes may not be as clear as his allies might wish. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.