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 wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.