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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle