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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

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