PMQs sketch: Vince on the naughty step

From the far end of the House, Cable peered up the bench at "the quad" on the budget issue.

The secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, the Right Honourable Dr John Vincent Cable, was back where he belonged today: on the Government's naughty step.

He had gone to ground last night after a day of pre-budget mischief-making but was forced back out into the open as MPs gathered for prime ministers' questions. It is here that the choreography of the coalition can be studied as positioning on the government front bench is as eagerly studied as Sir Alex Ferguson's Saturday team sheet.

There is a spot well down the bench where those out of favour with Number 10 and its power brokers can skulk - either happily because they are close enough to the exit to bolt or sadly because they are on the way out.

Both options applied to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley who recently set a coalition record for occupying it. Indeed, some thought he had been there long enough to claim squatters' rights.

But Vince, who had already spent several PMQs there, was never likely to give it up for long, and in making his return yesterday, allowed a grateful health secretary the opportunity to at last find a quiet corner to hide in. The relief of knowing in advance that the naughty step was already booked for the session was obvious on the faces of other serial offenders like Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, whose own chances of an early return cannot have been hurt by Liberal Democrats pronouncing him "one of us".

But Vince's decision yesterday to confirm recently written doubts about the government's lack of strategic direction on growth two weeks before the budget made him the naughty step's obvious occupant.

You could tell just how much trouble he was in by the placing of Eric Pickles, the man who gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "cabinet heavyweight", right next to him.

Vince adopted a scowl so redolent of those figures carved in stone above the doors of the Minster in York, the town of his birth, that you would think the original masons must have met his ancestors. But it is more likely tied to his exclusion from the main decision making over the budget and its effects. He believes he should be part of both because of his present job and his experience as a working economist.

Instead he could only peer up the bench in the direction of "the quad", the Coalition's own Gang of Four, who have reserved the right to sort out the way ahead.

Apart from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, Vince has had to swallow his leader and Deputy PM Nick Clegg as a member, not to mention Danny Alexander who had been sent out to buy some sweets and came back as chief secretary to the Treasury.

Indeed PMQs had hardly begun before Dave was asked if he shared Vince's doubts about the government's direction of travel. The PM said no, but all eyes switched to Chancellor George, following reports that the two previous best buddies were presently using separate song sheets. From mansion tax to child credits, scrapping the 50p income tax rate to squeezing pension benefits for the better off, the Tory side of the coalition equation have found themselves with the dilemma of working out which group of their own supporters to hit most.

This was not lost on the usually raucous ranks of the recidivist wing of the party who were significantly quieter during the interchanges.

All of which made life easier for Ed Miliband as he perfected his Dave technique by calmly asking the PM questions about the detail of government policy, a subject on which he does not have a GCSE.

Ed first pleased his own side by asking what message Dave had for someone about to lose all his tax credits unless he finds extra work at a time of record unemployment. Then he added to Tory discomfort by asking what message he had for those among the squeezed middle about to lose child benefits.

The Tory side was ominously quiet as the Prime Minister said life was about difficult decisions.

As Vince prepared to escape from the overhang that is Eric Pickles, nominations for next week's naughty step were already flooding in with the field being led by Tory MP Nadine Norries.

Sadly, Nadine does not qualify, as she is not on the front bench and, following an intervention in the FT yesterday, it is up to the reader to calculate her chances as the PM was asked for his comments on the following:

"The problem is that policy is being run by two public schoolboys who don't know what it's like to go to the supermarket and have to put things back on the shelves because they can't afford it for their children's lunchboxes. What's worse, they don't care either."

Vince almost smiled.

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

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Angela Rayner - from teenage mum to the woman who could unify Labour

Corbyn-supporting Rayner mentioned Tony Blair in her speech. 

For those at the Labour party conference feeling pessimistic this September, Angela Rayner’s speech on education may be a rare moment of hope. 

Not only did the shadow education secretary capitalise on one of the few issues uniting the party – opposition to grammar schools – and chart a return to left-wing policies, but she did so while paying tribute to the New Labour legacy. 

Rayner grew up on a Stockport council estate, raised by a mother who could not read nor write. She was, she reminded conference, someone who left school a no-hoper. 

"I left school at 16 pregnant and with no qualifications. Some may argue I was not a great role model for young people. The direction of my life was already set.

"But something happened. Labour's Sure Start centres gave me and my friends, and our children, the support we needed to grow and develop."

Rayner has shown complete loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn throughout the summer, taking two briefs in the depopulated shadow cabinet and speaking at his campaign events.

Nevertheless, as someone who practically benefited from Labour’s policies during its time in government, she is unapologetic about its legacy. She even mentioned the unmentionable, declaring: “Tony Blair talked about education, education, education. Theresa May wants segregation, segregation, segregation.”

As for Rayner's policies, a certain amount of realism underpins her rhetoric. She wants to bring back maintenance grants for low-income students, and the Educational Maintenance Allowance for those in further education. 

But she is not just offering a sop to the middle class. A new childcare taskforce will focus on early education, which she describes as “the most effective drivers of social mobility”. 

Rayner pledged to “put as much effort into expanding, technical, vocational education and meaningful apprenticeships, as we did with higher education”. She declared: "The snobbery about vocational education must end."

Tory critics have questioned the ability of a woman who left school at 16 to be an education secretary, Rayner acknowledged. “I may not have a degree - but I have a Masters in real life,” she said. It could have sounded trite, but her speech delivered the goods. Perhaps she will soon earn her PhD in political instincts too.