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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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.