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.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt