PMQs sketch: Grilled Miliband followed sautéed Clegg

The PM could not believe how he has gone from zero to hero without any planning.

Unemployment in the UK fell by one this morning when the Deputy Prime Minister came out of hiding and returned to his main job of being the present most people don't want for Christmas.

That is not to say he was not welcomed at the final Prime Ministers Questions of the year, since MPs on all sides of the house were more than happy to snack on him before heading off for more fulsome seasonal fare.

Indeed the volume of the welcome following his decision to go on the run just 48 hours ago might have been pleasing had he not noticed the increased sound was coming from the knives being sharpened all around him.

So it was unsurprising that as he finally took his traditional place next to the Prime Minister he kept looking nervously about him. But he need not have worried because sautéed Clegg had been taken off the menu to be replaced by grilled Miliband.

It had not meant to be this way following Dave's Churchillian gesture last Friday to everyone without a UK passport. Even on Monday, with Nick Clegg cowering under his desk, Ed M and his advisors thought they were heading into the Christmas recess with the Coalition in disarray and its leadership daggers drawn over Europe.

But what they had not counted on was the pulling power of power itself, and that insults could fly and feet could be stamped but not stamped out of office.

What they also had not counted on was the public's support for Dave's two fingers to everything foreign. As PMQs began it was clear that Tory MPs were pleased enough to eat themselves never mind Nick Clegg and they were more than happy to add Ed M to the menu.

The Prime Minister ,who cannot believe how he has gone from zero to hero without any planning ,was equally at home in a place where so often he has had to resort to decibels rather than debate to get him through the half hour. Indeed so confident was he that his minder Chancellor George took time out to move down the Government front bench for a bit of pre-Christmas gossip with Cabinet colleagues.

With the worst unemployment figures for 17 years the Labour leader was on relatively safe ground as he reminded the PM that his Christmas message a year ago had been about jobs ."What went wrong? "he said.

In PMQs past Dave's collar would already been tightening around his neck producing those wonderful autumnal hues so associated with an out-of-depth Prime Minister.

But there was none of that today as he turned to his now adoring back benchers and announced he would not take any lectures from Labour.

And then Ed turned to Europe. On the surface the clash between Lib-Dems and Tories in the Coalition over Europe would appear to be rich pickings for Labour. But this assumes that Labour has a position on Europe that is both agreed and popular and neither of these are true. Indeed the whole sub-text of today's PMQs could be found in two opinion polls published this morning which were carried out AFTER Cameron wielded his veto.

Both polls put the Tories two points ahead of Labour for the first time since December 2010 and show majority support for the PM over Europe. Even though they were never raised the existence of these extra elephants were enough to un-nerve Ed and give Dave a rare win. As Labour slumped and Lib-Dems slumped further the PM looked as if he would lick himself if he could. There is a real poll going on today in the Feltham and Heston constituency just west of London where Labour is defending a 4000 majority from the general election.

Nineteen months into this parliament with record unemployment, the worst economic crisis for 80 years and at loggerheads with Europe, Dave should be up to his throat in it leaving Ed with the rewards.

Watch this space.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496