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

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.