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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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war