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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Could Labour implement universal basic income?

The battle over this radical policy is moving gradually into the mainstream.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has called universal basic income (UBI) “an idea whose time may well have come”. It means a fixed regular payment to each citizen, irrespective of income or behaviour. It is seen by both socialists and Silicon Valley as a panacea for the post-industrial world, addressing unrestrained inequality, economic insecurity, and automation-generated unemployment in the modern economy.

Guy Standing, a professor at Soas and founding member of Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), says a “perfect storm of factors have suddenly pushed us into being a mainstream policy question” in recent years. “A lot of people who were sitting on their hands, as it were, have started to come out in favour ... I'm inundated with requests to speak and involvement in conferences, and it's indicative of the sudden realisation that if the growing inequality and growing economic insecurities persist, then the drift to fascist populism will continue. 

“Of course, in the background, a lot of these techies including prominent names in Silicon Valley have come out in favour because they see robots displacing us all. I don't buy that argument, but it's added to a growing chorus of people saying that we should take it more seriously.”

Standing's recent book charts the long history of thinking about UBI (through ancient Greece, Thomas More, and Martin Luther King). But the idea's rise to prominence is the result of a interlinked developments in the economy and the nature of work. As Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds argues, changes such as the rise of self-employment and the gig economy challenge the appropriateness of the traditional welfare state. It's “based around the principle of compulsion, and broadly believing there's two binary states – people in work, and people out of work. We know it's becoming a much more complicated picture than that... The state can't keep up with the complexity of people's lives.”

For Standing, the prospects of UBI being implemented successfully depend largely on how it is framed. He is wary of libertarians who see it as an opportunity to dismantle the welfare state, and believes it needs to be placed within the context of chronic economic insecurity for a growing number within the post-industrial economy.

“The argument that I think is going to prove really important for the left is linked to the growth of the 'precariat',” he says, meaning those living without predictability or security. “People in the precariat are experiencing chronic insecurity that will not be overcome by any existing policy.” 

Even so, support from business could be key. Peter Swenson's work on the history of the welfare state finds that reforms and expansions of social policy have only succeeded when key sections of the capitalist class are in support. He, and other academics, resist the idea that the welfare state is simply the focal point for the battle between left and right over Robin-Hood style redistribution. If UBI is to make its way into policy, support from business may be more important than the strengthening of the left.

Reynolds claims UBI may solve not just policy problems, but political ones.  "You have to say that Labour's situation, in terms of how we've struggled on all of these issues (the party's polling is significantly behind on running the welfare state) over the last few years, means that we should definitely be open to new thinking in this area.” Both he and Standing  are part of the working group that was brought together by McDonnell in February to produce a publication on the issue before the next general election, which would then be discussed across the country. Understandably, the group didn't quite meet its deadline. But Standing says “the general thrust of the plans hasn't changed”.

Standing is hopeful that important sections of the Labour Party are either in support, or can be won over. Clearly, the leadership is generally supportive of the idea – both McDonnell and Corbyn have expressed as much in public statements. Standing says many MPs are “rethinking their position ... many of them have not taken up a position because they thought that this was not an issue to be considered. I think we're seeing a real opening for a much more constructive discussion.”

Reynolds says that “there's people on the right and the left of the party who are in favour, there's people on the right and the left who are against”.
 
Nevertheless, discussion is winning over important Labour constituencies. It's not just radical activist groups, but also trade unions, who are coming round to the idea. According to Standing: “Unite now supports it, as well as a lot of unions in Europe. It used to be the case that the unions were among the most fierce critics of a basic income, on the spurious grounds (in my view) that if people had a basic income they wouldn't push for higher wages and employers wouldn't give higher wages.

“We found in our pilots and in our psychological research that people who have basic security have a stronger bargaining position and are therefore more likely to stand up for their rights, and can lead to improvement in wages and working conditions. So I think that all of those objections are gradually being exposed by theoretical arguments against them, or empirical evidence, from pilots.”

Reynolds agrees that “there's a lot of support coming from the wider labour movement”, but warns that people must not be too optimistic about anything happening quickly. “Clearly it's going to need a radical change to how the tax and benefits system would work, and you'd obviously be completely recasting how personal allowances work, and all of that,” he says. “I think this is sort of the cutting edge of thinking about the future and what our economy will look like in 50-100 years' time, that is the frame that we're looking at.” 

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.