PMQs review: Harman hammers absent Cameron

With the aid of some fine lines, Labour's deputy leader ridiculed the PM's EU panic.

With David Cameron still away in the US, it was Nick Clegg who manned the dispatch box at today's PMQs, but rather than targeting Clegg, Harriet Harman (who, as is traditional when Cameron is absent, replaced Ed Miliband) chose to concentrate her fire on Cameron. "Why is it that out of the last eight Wednesdays, the Prime Minister has only answered questions in this House once?", she asked. It was a strong stat, and Harman followed it up with another fine line: "He's been busy explaining to President Obama the benefits of Britain's membership of the EU, why is he able to do it in the White House but not in this House?" She went on to ridicule Cameron's dithering over the Queen's Speech EU amendment: "if the Prime Minister was here, would he be voting for the government, against the government or showing true leadership and abstaining?" 

In response, a loyal Clegg resisted the temptation to have fun at Cameron's expense and turned his guns on the absent Miliband, declaring that it was the Labour leader "who should be relieved that there isn't Prime Minister's Questions". Referring to Miliband's recent disastrous World At One interview, he quipped: "he denied that borrowing would go up under Labour's plans 10 times, who said that there isn't enough comedy on Radio 4?" 

As I predicted earlier, Tory MPs seized the opportunity to remind Clegg of his past support for a vote on EU membership, with two brandishing the 2008 Lib Dem leaflet calling for "a real referendum". In response, Clegg insisted that his position had not changed; he supports a referendum the next time that there is a formal change in Britain's relationship with the EU (the 2010 Lib Dem manifesto stated: "The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in / out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU."). 

The Deputy PM went further by stating the coalition's EU referendum lock, which sees a public vote triggered whenever there is a transfer of powers to Brussels, meant that it was a question of "when, not if" a referendum would be held. It was the clearest signal Clegg has ever given that he believes a referendum is now inevitable at some point in the next three-four years. 

In a notable attempt to narrow the distance between himself and Cameron, Clegg said that while the coalition's position on a referendum was clear, Labour had voted against the referendum lock. It's worth noting, however, that since then Miliband has explicitly stated that he would not repeal the legislation. With the negotiations over the post-crisis shape of the EU likely to significantly change Britain's relationship a EU, a referendum looks increasingly inevitable whichever party wins in 2015. 

Harriet Harman asked why "out of the last eight Wednesdays, the Prime Minister has only answered questions in this House once?" Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser