PMQs Sketch: Balls's silence is deafening

Dave seizes economic initiative after the two Eds u-turn

It will be of little comfort to the 2.68m people who found themselves on the dole this week to discover that the most noteworthy event that happened whilst their fate was being discussed at Prime Ministers Questions was that the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Ed Balls said nothing. In fact to be absolutely accurate he not only said nothing but he waved nothing bristled nothing and grimaced nothing at the same time. Some might argue so what since PMQs is the stage for the weekly clash between present incumbent Dave and the alter-Ed Miliband. But the great delight to observers of the 19 months of PMQs since the Coalition came to power has been the quality, volume and quantity of noises oft generated by Ed the-slightly-lesser from his seat on Labour's benches. Doubts continue to exist about the performance and future of Ed M but until today the conduct of Ed B was enough to guarantee the discomfort of the PM and the regular displaying of his Flashman tendencies to the horror of his spinners.

As the leaders faced each other down with the latest clever phrase or killer question Ed B would be down at ankle level nipping and biting Dave in that bruiser behaviour he had honed whilst employed as Gordon Brown's chief bully boy. He even developed his own system of semaphore to disconcert Dave as he tried to formulate his answers. Indeed Dave paid his finest compliment by describing him as "the most annoying person in modern politics". So why the change? Because at the weekend the Eds let it be known that they are no longer against the cuts. Well they are against the cuts but they are not going reverse them.

This less than clear statement of their position has left some of their supporters confused and others, including the unions, hopping mad. This particular relaunch, possibly the third this month, followed a spate of opinion polls showing Dave, despite the economic disasters of the past 18 months, still streets ahead of Labour on the "who would you trust with the economy" scale not to mention the fact that up to 70 per cent of Labour voters can't see Ed M inside Number 10 on anything other than a day trip.

Having failed to get anywhere in the short term, if 19 months can be described as short term, the two Eds have now decided that the next three years must be devoted to proving they can be trusted with whatever few pounds remain in the economy. Ed M is also desperate to show he is not in the pocket of the trade unions he so assiduously courted to win power.

So it was against this background that despite the worst unemployment figures for 17 years, Tory MPs gathered in the House of Commons chamber and cheered as the Labour leader rose to attempt to skewer Dave. The Prime Minister now attends these functions looking as if he has doused himself in sun lotion to further his escape is anyone does manage to get a hand on him. But even as he tried to tie Dave down to responsibility for the latest jobs crisis it was clear Ed was failing to get a grip.

Everyone knew it was only time before Dave got in the counter attack. "What he needs to do is change course", said Ed who established that if unemployment went up further that would seem to be the fault of the Office of Budget Responsibility now clearly renamed the Office for Responsibility for the Budget if Dave is to be believed. But all of that fell flat against his charge that the Labour leader had marched against the cuts last year and now was in favour of them.

"He's an expert in changing course", said the PM, glistening with pleasure. Meanwhile Ed B sat silent in his heckle free zone. 2.68m unemployed suddenly plus 1.

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
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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

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