PMQs sketch: crimson Cameron takes a bashing

The PM turned into a shouty version of the BBC’s George Entwistle as he tried and failed to cope with Miliband's onslaught.

When the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland accused the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition of telling “a whole load of rubbish jokes" you could tell another week had gone by in the British body politic. And what a week it was as MPs gathered in the Commons chamber for the regular taking of the government’s temperature masquerading as Prime Minister's Questions.

When Harold Wilson declared a week "a long time in politics" he could not know that. 40 years on, former government chief whip Andrew Mitchell would be living, if that’s the right word, proof. Just seven days ago, "Thrasher" sat squirming as Ed Miliband described him as "toast" and his PM professed undying devotion. Fast forward a week, and there were scorch marks where he once sat.

In his place, a rather surprised Sir George Samuel Knatchbull Young 6th baronet, who just six weeks ago had been pensioned off by the same PM who needed his old job as Leader of the House to dump disgraced Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. Sir George, known as a decent old cove in Tory circles, had hardly got his knitting out before being called back to the colours.

Labour’s Kevin Barron (Maltby Comp) tried to make something of the PM’s recent commitment to the masses by pointing out Sir George, like Dave, had gone to Eton, but it was clear the bicycling baronet (for whom the Downing Street cops will undoubtedly salute) was indifferent to such plebby intervention.

But Ed hardly had to bother with this sudden change of fortune as he ranged around the latest confusions and cockups which seem to mark the PM’s passage. The Labour leader came off his seat like Zebedee as Speaker Bercow sounded the bell on the weekly clash where questions asked are never answered and answers given where never questioned. Having demanded an explanation to last week’s energy tariffs fiasco , where the PM had promised benefits for all, Ed gave his own answer. It was another dodgy Dave offer. Normally the PM bats away the first few insults as he tries to hang on to the composure his advisers say should go with the job. But you could have hot-wired him straight into the National Grid and heated Milton Keynes as Ed found his chakra and poked it with a stick. The Prime Minister turned into a shouty version of the BBC’s George Entwistle as he tried and failed to cope with Ed’s onslaught. What about the West Coast main-line, he shouted, to the delight of Labour and the increasingly nervous noise of the Tories.

Chancellor George tried to help out “from a sedentary position” (which is Commons-speak for sitting down) only to be denounced with delight by Ed for his part in the first class ticket fiasco. With the noise in the chamber dangerously close to shaking the Deputy PM out of his slumber of indifference, the Speaker had to produce his own pogo-stick to remind MPs of the rules of engagement. But by now, the Labour leader was enjoying himself too much to stop. “The crimson tide is back,” he said referring to the PM’s now accepted habit of displaying the hues of autumn everywhere above his collar. Dave did try a rather strangulated defence of the question not asked about the economy, revealing that tomorrow’s growth figures for the last quarter will be as good as forecast, but the cheers from his side were lost in the jeers from the other.

With Dave in the doldrums, eyes do stray up and down the government front bench to see who the runners and riders of any future challenge might be. Despite their appearance as nodding dogs every time the PM spoke, most of his cabinet was there to be seen, including Home Secretary Theresa May. She is the latest to be shown in the parade ring, qualifying for so far avoiding departmental meltdown and pressing the right Europe buttons. But her head was bouncing in dutiful sequence with the rest as a relieved Dave, not to mention his party , finally came to the end of the Ed-banging.

As PMQs tried to get back to proper business, Labour’s Tom Watson, scourge of the Murdochs, asked about a file on a paedophile ring which included references to a parliamentary aide to a former Prime Minister. No jokes in this.

David Cameron: "you could have hot-wired him straight into the National Grid and heated Milton Keynes". Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

The Manchester attack will define this election: Broadcasters have a careful line to tread

It's right that the government should be given a chance to respond, but they must not be allowed to use it to campaign.

Every election campaign has its story, its place in the political history of this country. 2017 will forever be known for Manchester and the horror of the attack on Britain's young; and fighting terrorism will be a theme, overt or underlying, of what we see and hear between now and polling day.

The broadcasters have covered the events comprehensively yet sensitively. But they are aware that we're in an election campaign too; and when other news drives aside the carefully-balanced campaign formats, ministerial appearances give them a dilemma.

The fact is that what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are doing in response to Manchester is newsworthy. It was Theresa May's duty to implement the recommendations of her security advisers on the elevation of the terror alert, and it would have been unthinkable for the news channels not to broadcast her various statements.

But it is also true that, if the bomb hadn't been detonated, Tuesday would have been a day in which the PM would have been under relentless damaging scrutiny for her u-turn on social care. All the opposition parties would have been in full cry across the airwaves. Yet in the tragic circumstances we found ourselves, nobody could argue that Downing Street appearances on the terror attack should prompt equal airtime for everyone from Labour to Plaid Cymru.

There are precedents for ministers needing to step out of their party roles during a campaign, and not be counted against the stopwatch balance of coverage. Irish terrorism was a factor in previous elections and the PM or Northern Ireland secretary were able to speak on behalf of the UK government. It applied to the foot and mouth epidemic that was occupying ministers' time in 2001. Prime ministers have gone to foreign meetings before, too. Mrs Thatcher went to an economic summit in photogenic Venice with her soulmate Ronald Reagan three days before the 1987 election, to the irritation of Neil Kinnock.

There are plenty of critics who will be vigilant about any quest for party advantage in the way that Theresa May and Amber Rudd now make their TV and radio appearances; and it’s inevitable that a party arguing that it offers strength and stability will not object to being judged against these criteria in extreme and distressing times.

So it's necessary for both broadcasters and politicians to be careful, and there are some fine judgements to be made. For instance, it was completely justifiable to interview Amber Rudd about the latest information from Manchester and her annoyance with American intelligence leaks. I was less comfortable with her being asked in the same interview about the Prevent strategy, and with her response that actions would follow "after June", which edges into party territory and would be a legitimate area to seek an opposition response.

When the campaigning resumes, these challenges become even greater. Deciding when the Prime Minister is speaking for the government and nation, or when she is leader of the Conservative Party, will never be black and white. But I would expect to see the broadcast bulletins trying to draw clearer lines about what is a political report and what is the latest from Manchester or from G7. They must also resist any efforts to time ministerial pronouncements with what's convenient for the party strategists' campaign grid.

There might also usefully be more effort to report straight what the parties are saying in the final days, with less spin and tactical analysis from the correspondents. The narrative of this election has been changed by tragedy, and the best response is to let the politicians and the public engage as directly as possible in deciding what direction the nation should now take.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

0800 7318496