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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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.