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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue