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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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad