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

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.