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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.