PMQs Sketch: Ed smirks as Dave smarts

Miliband declares NHS is Cameron's "poll tax".

It must have been the third pledge of David Cameron's support in as many days which reduced the colour of Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's face to that of his hair as he was led out for humiliation and sacrifice at Prime Ministers Questions.

Officially he was parked on the front benches to prove that Dave was still on his side, but having been deliberately jammed between a rock and a hard place -- in this case George Osborne and Ken Clarke (maybe more of an immovable object) -- he had all the look of someone invited to observe his own funeral.

Although he was just out of slap range it was clear that he had been shuffled up the Government front bench to at least share the smelly brown stuff that was about to be poured on his leader for stupidly trusting him with the National Health Service. And poured it was. Ed Miliband has had his own ups and downs, as this weekly bear pit deservedly chronicled, but he's been on a roll since realizing that Dave appears to be out of his depth.

The first clue to Prime Ministerial uncertainty is how quickly the volume control is turned up during what passes for the answers part of PMQs . The second clue, and that which gives most satisfaction to the massed ranks on Labour's benches, is the sudden and unseasonal change in the colour of Dave's skin above the collar.

This is referred to as the "crimson tide" and emerged so swiftly today that one would not have been surprised if reports had come in that the Thames Barrier had suddenly been raised a few minutes after 12.

Dave was dead in the water as soon as Ed mentioned Monday's summit at Number 10 on the reform of the NHS which seemed to have excluded anybody who worked in it.

The whippers-in on the Tory side tried desperately to get their own volume up to cover the PM's embarrassment but Dave flailed about from the start.

Giving Ed as much of the finger (index) as he could the Prime Minister then tried a new, if novel, approach to PMQs by proceeding to ask himself questions on Ed's behalf and then answering them, thereby breaking two parliamentary traditions. At one stage even the hapless Health Secretary tried to come to Dave's aid and was lucky not be mugged by his minders.

Speaker Bercow intervened occasionally to point out to both sides that continued caterwauling would not go down well with the public but MPs, confident that there constituents had far better things to do that watch PMQs, continued to ignore him. (He went on to keep them back in class at lunch-time for bad behaviour).

The Prime Minister had been slipped a copy of Labour's game plan for this afternoon's latest debate on the NHS but try as he may it was obvious that Ed was not going to be diverted by a few uncomfortable facts.

And it was now that Ed launched his own recently sharpened finger in the direction of the Prime Minister and declaimed: "this will become his poll tax".

Whether it was the word tax or the word poll, the face of the other Ed, Shadow Chancellor and part-time choirmaster of the hoi polloi, broke into the sort of smile which has led the PM to describe him as the most unpleasant man in Parliament.

Having successfully eviscerated Dave it seemed a shame that parliamentary tradition meant that Labour could not immediately operate in the patient sitting next to him, Deputy PM Nick Clegg.

With his own Coalition involvement in NHS reforms looking certain to end in tears he had spent PMQs looking like someone waiting for an operation on his piles. He now seems certain for surgery at his own spring conference in three weeks time.

As Ed smirked and Dave smarted it was clear to all that this one will run and run and run even after the Health Secretary has a mysterious accident and has to go private to recover.

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

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Recess confidential: Labour's liquid party

Sniffing out the best stories from Westminster, including Showsec, soames, and Smith-side splits.

If you are celebrating in a brewery, don’t ask Labour to provide the drinks. Because of the party’s continuing failure to secure a security contractor for its Liverpool conference, it is still uncertain whether the gathering will take place at all. Since boycotting G4S, the usual supplier, over its links with Israeli prisons, Labour has struggled to find an alternative. Of the five firms approached, only one – Showsec – offered its services. But the company’s non-union-recognition policy is inhibiting an agreement. The GMB, the firm’s antagonist, has threatened to picket the conference if Showsec is awarded the contract. In lieu of a breakthrough, sources suggest two alternatives: the police (at a cost of £59.65 per constable per hour), or the suspension of the G4S boycott. “We’ll soon find out which the Corbynites dislike the least,” an MP jested. Another feared that the Tories’ attack lines will write themselves: “How can Labour be trusted with national security if it can’t organise its own?”

Farewell, then, to Respect. The left-wing party founded in 2004 and joined by George Galloway after his expulsion from Labour has officially deregistered itself.

“We support Corbyn’s Labour Party,” the former MP explained, urging his 522,000 Facebook followers to sign up. “The Labour Party does not belong to one man,” replied Jess Phillips MP, who also pointed out in the same tweet that Respect had “massively failed”. Galloway, who won 1.4 per cent of the vote in this year’s London mayoral election, insists that he is not seeking to return to Labour. But he would surely be welcomed by Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, whom he once described as his “closest friend”. “We have spoken almost daily for 30 years,” Galloway boasted.

After Young Labour’s national committee voted to endorse Corbyn, its members were aggrieved to learn that they would not be permitted to promote his candidacy unless Owen Smith was given equal treatment. The leader’s supporters curse more “dirty tricks” from the Smith-sympathetic party machine.

Word reaches your mole of a Smith-side split between the ex-shadow cabinet ministers Lisa Nandy and Lucy Powell. The former is said to be encouraging the challenger’s left-wing platform, while the latter believes that he should make a more centrist pitch. If, as expected, Smith is beaten by Corbyn, it’s not only the divisions between the leader and his opponents that will be worth watching.

Nicholas Soames, the Tory grandee, has been slimming down – so much so, that he was congratulated by Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, on his weight loss. “Soon I’ll be able to give you my old suits!” Soames told the similarly rotund Watson. 

Kevin Maguire is away

I'm a mole, innit.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser