PMQs review: Cameron just wants to talk about Unite, but Bercow won't let him

The Tories go to war with the Speaker after he rebukes Cameron for ignoring a question in favour of an attack on the unions.

There was only one subject David Cameron wanted to talk about at today's PMQs: Unite and Len McCluskey. After one of Ed Miliband's strongest months as Labour leader, the Tories are determined to use the rows over Falkirk and Grangemouth to try and throw him off course.

It was the NHS that Miliband led on, laying down a marker by challenging Cameron to guarantee that there wouldn't be an A&E crisis this winter. Both leaders traded stats and slogans ("the NHS isn't safe in his hands", "Labour never stand up for the NHS") to little effect, with Miliband just about edging the PM. The Tories' fateful decision to impose Andrew Lansley's reforms on the service (for which they had no mandate) means they will find it harder to evade responsibility for the crises ahead.

Cameron ended the exchange by rather clumsily shoehorning in an attack on Unite, demanding "when is he going to understand his job is to stand up to the bully boys in Unite and show some courage?" And there was more to come. To one of the many planted questions from Tory backbenchers on the subject, he replied that Miliband was "behaving like the mayor of a Sicilian town towards the mafia – 'they put me in and I don’t want them to take me out'", a barb that drew some grudging smiles from Labour MPs.

But near the end of session, the PM overreached himself. After Labour MP John Cryer ended a question on employment tribunals by declaring, "I'm a trade unionist and I'm damn proud of it", Cameron responded by ignoring the original topic and launched another blitzkrieg against the union "bully boys" who "seem to condone intimidating families, intimidating witnesses and intimidating the leader of the opposition". This prompted a dramatic intervention from John Bercow, who acidly remarked: "it's a good idea to remember the essence of the question that was put". As the Labour frontbench motioned for Cameron to get to his feet again, the PM shook his head in exasperation. The tension rose later when he headed off another intervention from Bercow by declaring "I'm keen to answer the question, Mr Speaker!" and flashed him a look of contempt. The Tories have often accused Bercow of unfairly ruling against Cameron, but never has the PM so explicitly retaliated. Deputy chief whip Greg Hands continued the assault after the session by tweeting: "PMQs getting like Old Trafford. 5 minutes extra time in the hope that the Reds can score a late equaliser."

Yet however much they may dislike the messenger, the Tories would be wise to listen to the message. One can hardly blame them for seeking to take advantage of the Falkirk debacle but they shouldn't make the error of assuming that voters share their instinctive loathing of the trade unions. A recent Populus poll found that 69 per cent of the public agree that "it is important that Labour retains its strong links with the trade unions because they represent many hard working people in Britain", including 53 per cent of Tory voters, with just 28 per cent disagreeing.

The days when Ted Heath was forced to call an election to find out whether it was he or the unions "who ran Britain" (answer: the unions) are long gone. Today's general secretaries present a far less threatening face. If he wants to win converts, rather than merely rouse supporters, Cameron should avoid a repeat of today's monomania.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”