PMQs sketch: Cameron gets pulled back into the doldrums

Miliband decided to split the torture in two today.

One of the great mysteries of modern politics is how the leader of the Labour Party manages to smuggle a sharp pointy stick past Commons security every week to poke the Prime Minister. Ed produced it with his usual flourish just after noon today and proceeded to chase Dave around the dispatch box for the 30 minutes of the fun known to regulars as Prime Minister's Questions.

We all know the PM has been in the doldrums since the Chancellor produced THAT budget six months ago, but each week he hopes to recover. In fact, so good, relatively speaking, were last week's economic indicators that he had high hopes this would be his week. But such is the disarray within Tory ranks the every time he thinks he's about to climb out of the smelly stuff one of his own pulls him back in again.

You could tell treachery was afoot by the volume of support he got from his own side during today's spat with Ed Miliband over that most unifying of party policies - Europe. The latest row is over a planned increase in the EU budget, which has Tory sceptics snarling and ready to force a vote this evening demanding it be cut instead. Spotting this passing bandwagon, Labour climbed on board leaving Dave, as Ed was happy to point out, with only his embarrassment to keep him warm.

With Ed and his cohorts ready to join Tory rebels in the lobby this evening, the sound of support for the PM from those who intend to vote against him doubled in decibels, leading Speaker Bercow to call for calm. But there was even more pleasure on the opposition benches as the Speaker took his own opportunity to remind Dave that PMQs were not questions from the PM but for him."I've told him ten times," he said as Dave slumped in his seat.

Normally, Ed takes his full six questions to turn the screw as tightly as possible on the PM, who seems to have abandoned any attempt to hang on to his temper. But he decided to split the torture in two today, leaving Dave sweating over the second bout as he paid lip service to MPs whose questions filled the gap. To Labour's great pleasure, the day had begun with another clash between the coalition partners over energy policy. Just last week, the Lib Dem Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, had gone into a major sulk when Dave announced plans for energy companies to give everyone the lowest tariffs - although he didn't really mean it. 

Well, Davey had his bottom lip way out again today when one of his Tory juniors appeared to announce the end of the Lib Dem plan for renewable supplies by sticking a wind farm on every street corner. What was the policy, demanded Miliband, and none of your business was the reply. But even Dave knew this was merely another pre-lunch taster on the way to the main course.

Six months ago, when Chancellor George was still in the game, he commissioned Michael Heseltine to take a look at the economy in a move intended to demonstrate his confidence in criticism. And so it was with some pleasure that Miliband read out this paragraph from Lord Hezza's conclusions: "The message I keep hearing is that the the UK does not have a strategy for growth and wealth creation."

George stared off into the space reserved for those who have uttered the immortal phrase, "beam me up Scotty", only to find out it does not work. By now, the volume button had been turned up so high that the Speaker uttered the dire warning that if it continued they would be kept back after class. The thought of being late for lunch clearly worked, and MPs headed off to work out how to vote on Europe later. Dave looked like someone planning a sandwich at his desk.

David Cameron poses on the door of number 10 Downing Street after buying his remembrance poppy from army officers. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.