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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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.