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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle