PMQs sketch: the thrashing of "Thrasher"

Is Andrew Mitchell sunk or saved? Ed wins anyway.

Aficionados of films of the western genre, otherwise known as cowboy movies, would have thought they had stumbled onto the set of High Noon had they taken a wrong turn into Westminster at lunchtime today. All that was missing was Frankie Laine's rendition of "Do not forsake me oh my darling" as Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell made his lonely way into the House of Commons for what may yet be his last Prime Minister’s Questions in the job he's had for a handful of weeks.

It was standing room only as MPs, back from their latest break, gathered excitedly for the disembowelling of not just one of their own, but someone whose humiliation since "plebgate"could apparently unite members of all parties. Around the country, Old Rugbeians of a certain age must also have gathered for what they could only have dreamed of at school - the thrashing of "The Thrasher". Ever since this soubriquet emerged, it was possible that the PM's choice of chief enforcer might run into trouble, as indeed he did on the night the imperial bicycle was almost arrested. The full import of what was said between Thrasher and the law may never be known but the Telegraph added the useful information yesterday that, even before he proudly picked up that nickname at Rugby he was known at prep school as "Snotch", a composite of Snob and Mitchell.

And so it was against this background that he made his way early into the Commons to tether himself to his seat knowing that his enemies were not just in front of him on the pleb benches  but happily, in the best panto tradition, behind him as well. Having established a reputation for statesmanlike behaviour at recent party conferences, it was always going to be interesting to see how long it would take for the party leaders to resume normal service now that the most recent holiday break was at an end.

Dave knew he was in line for a hiding to nothing and must have spent his pre-PMQs practice this morning on how to handle what Ed M would throw at him. He was thus obviously confused when the Labour leader rose to sound almost complimentary in a question about today's unemployment figures. There had been reports that, following his "one nation” speech a new Ed would arise. Was this him, wondered observers as the PM sat down.

Luckily for all, sketch writers included , it was only a wheeze to catch Dave off guard and, quick as a flash, Ed turned unemployment into a question about police numbers and, from there, it was only a short bike ride to a question about Thrasher. Throughout this preamble, the object of the gathering storm had slunk deeper into his seat next to deposed Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, "promoted" to Leader of the House in the same reshuffle, who must be getting enormous satisfaction out of the whole affair. Now he could only stare off into that space normally booked by Dave's deputy Nick Clegg as Ed, egged on by his now happy members, gathered himself for the assault.

To add insult to planned injury, he worked his way into position by offering in evidence the words of the PM's other favourite public schoolboy Boris Johnson on police matters. Had not the Mayor said yobs who swore at the police should be arrested, said Ed, to the delight of his side and the discomfort of the other. "It's a night in the cells for a yob and a night in the Carlton Club for the Chief Whip," he said, with all the pleasure of someone who had managed to successfully speak the off-the-cuff remark he had been practising for hours.

By now, Dave's equanimity had departed in a cab for another location and paramedics put on standby as the Prime Ministerial hue changed to its now PMQ standard puce. Had he left it there, Ed would probably have emerged with all the points up for grabs at the weekly contest  but old habits - and his apparently genuine contempt for the PM - die hard. He pointed scornfully to Thrasher's cabinet colleagues and said they too wanted him out. "He's toast,"said the Labour leader. This proved an insult too far for the Tory faithful who, whilst mostly sharing Ed's view, weren't going to take it from someone who they realised just recently may well put more than a few of them on the dole in 2015.

With passers-by no doubt becoming increasingly concerned at the volume of noise accompanying the reasoned debate, Speaker Bercow appealed for calm on all sides, but it was too late. PMQs staggered on, as did the PM, pausing only to have a hissy fit with Labour MP Chris Bryant, who wanted to read Dave's private emails to Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. The Speaker did try to inject some further life into proceedings  by calling Tory MP and Dave-baiter Nadine Dorries but by now emotions had been extinguished and the lunch bell was due. Is Thrasher sunk or saved? Ed wins anyway.

Ed Miliband at the Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war