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

Show Hide image

Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.