PMQs sketch: An irrelevant sideshow

Ed may have had a blustering Dave on the ropes, but he couldn't land the K.O.

There have been days when the House of Commons could claim to be the centre of world events.Today was not one of them.

As Occupy London stole the domestic political agenda on the steps of St Paul's and the Greek PM hijacked the rest of Europe with an outrageous threat to involve his own people in their destiny, the best Dave could do was to apologise in advance for the "most unpleasant-looking thing I have to do every week".This was not, as you might imagine, slipping his hand up the back of his Deputy's jacket to ensure continuation of the coalition, but turning up for Prime Ministers Questions.

This revelation came by way of Grazia magazine, where he is starting his campaign to win back the women voters who have gone on the run since they worked out that his  promise, "we are all in this together", didn't apply to them. PMQs pushes you into coming across as a "macho, aggressive male," he said before adding,"that's not the real you" --- which is a bit of a shame since that's the one who turned up. 

To be fair to Dave it's not just women he has fallen out with. Many on his own side have failed to fall for the charm. Tory MPs have a unique way of demonstrating their disloyalty by upping the volume of their support in direct proportion. So after mugging him on Europe last week they went Richter-plus on the noise-ometer as he went about his "unpleasant thing".

Each week now Ed Miliband turns up at the Despatch Box knowing in advance he has the Prime Minister on the ropes. Sadly, his North London comp has not given him the lessons in bullying and roasting which Eton College gave to Dave and so sometimes having got him on the ropes, Ed lets him go. He has been concentrating more on his technique but he never looks comfortable with the killer punch, and so it was today.

Of course it did not help that Ed had decided that though Europe might be on everyone else's lips, it was not going to be on his. Dave was equally happy to avoid the subject of his regular nightmares and neither leader wanted any further discussion about referendums and asking the voters etc, whether in Greece or anywhere else.

Ed obviously reckoned he had enough to skewer Dave on the home front. Did the PM think a growth rate of 0.5 per cent a success or failure? What was he going to do about boardroom pay rises? Why was none of this anything to do with him? Why was he so out of touch?

Dave was so wrong-footed he even said the Archbishop of Canterbury was speaking for the country when he condemned boardroom excesses -- although he recovered enough to baulk at the Archbishop's call for a Tobin tax.

By now Labour was in full throat as Ed Balls, totally at home on the bullying front, egged his leader on to shriller tones. Even Ken Clarke, used to treating PMQs as his pre-lunch nap, stared about him with some confusion at the noise before Speaker Bercow intervened to appeal for calm. "Its only six minutes past," he said in that withering British style that might be slightly lost on MPs in other countries.

As some of the more corpulent MPs fought for breath, former Chancellor Alistair Darling tried to put an end to the irrelevance of the proceedings by saying more detail was needed on the eurozone bail-out plan. He even mentioned Greece.

There had been agreement last week, said Dave; without mentioning his Greek equivalents decision to ask his people if they had a view on being screwed. Sixty seconds later he was on the much safer ground of keeping foreign workers out of the country. A lot of them could be Greeks.

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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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