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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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