PMQs sketch: Smug Dave escapes to Strasbourg

Cameron struggles to maintain his tired economic defence.

David Cameron has been called many things since he became Prime Minister, some of them true, some of them anatomically impossible, but today his many qualities were summed up in just one word -- 'smug'. It may have taken Ed Miliband 18 months to think it up but checking on some of the synonyms for it -- big-headed, complacent, egoistical, overweening, pompous, prideful, self-satisfied and swell-headed -- let the reader decide if the cap fits.

It certainly appeared to be an undaunted Dave who appeared in front of the Commons at Prime Ministers Questions with the confidence of a man untouched by presiding over Britain's first foray beyond the £1 trillion mark (how easy that trips off the tongue) in the national debt. Or indeed had only just heard that the economy had shrunk by 0.2% in the last quarter and could be on its way back into recession. But the mask seemed to slip a bit when the Labour leader, with uncharacteristic brevity, asked him what had gone wrong with his economic plan.

Flanked by a much more doleful looking Chancellor George, and the increasingly embarrassed Lib-Dem leader/Deputy Prime Minister Nick, Dave trotted out his usual defence that what was not the fault of Labour was the fault of Europe. But with more than a year and a half of Prime Ministerial salary in the bank, that defence failed even to get his own side going, apart from the usual handful on day-release.

Dave suddenly seemed off his game as Ed struck home with his charge of self-satisfied smug complacency and even George squirmed as the suddenly refreshed Labour leader stuck in the word 'arrogance' for extra measure. The rictus grin slipped even further when Ed popped up for his second bite and mentioned Dave's present biggest nightmare, reforming the NHS. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, now known in Tory circles as dead man walking, was not in obvious sight as Ed pointed out that everyone apart from the PM wanted the reforms abandoned.

Even as Dave struggled to find the prepared rebuttal in his exercise book, the relative silence from his own side confirmed that Mr Lansley should continue checking under his car every morning (it is at times like these that you can see the Deputy PM hoping that some passing space ship, spotting a like soul, might just beam him up out if it).

It is often said that Prime Ministers facing trouble at home take themselves abroad where they are treated with the deference they deserve and that probably explained Dave's colour returning from an alarming puce to its traditional golden brown as PMQs drew to a close. As George demonstrated yesterday, Europe might be a no-go area for Tories politically but it is still usefully close to escape to when times are tough. Thus, by this afternoon Dave will be in Strasbourg where he intends to while away an hour being nasty to the European Court of Human Rights. This is not expected to produce any significant changes in policy but always goes down well with the Sun and the Mail and the Telegraph for whom the civilized world still stops at a pub on the cliffs overlooking Dover harbour.

The Prime Minister will then be popping on to Davos in Switzerland where every year the real masters of the universe gather for the World Economic Forum and invite prime ministers to explain to them the plans for their countries they have yet to tell their citizens. It is said that one of the themes for this year's meeting is income disparity which should be relevant since at least 70 billionnaires will be present.

Dave is going to Davos with Chancellor George and as mere millionaires themselves income disparity will be on their minds and they clearly have much to learn. They will be hosting a Great British Tea party for the rich and powerful but without star guest Mick Jagger, who arrived and just as quickly left Switzerland, having been told his appearance was a coup for the Tory Party. Sir Mick said he felt "exploited" by the Government, a sentiment that may be shared by the many millions having their Great British Tea at home tomorrow night.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era