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PMQs review: Going postal over Royal Mail privatisation

Miliband's focused outrage cuts through Cameron's red mist.

Anger can be a great asset in politics if it is channelled properly. When focused, it enhances performance. As red mist, it is ruinous. In Prime Minister’s question’s today, both Ed Miliband and David Cameron got sincerely angry –  sometimes the outrage is confected – but it was the Labour leader who was made effective. Cameron just got cross. 

Miliband’s questions focused on the privatisation of Royal Mail and, specifically, the charge that a prized asset was sold too cheap, with the result that Britain has been collectively diddled out of millions. (£750m according to a National Audit Office report.) The Prime Minister’s answer was that the sale netted billions for British taxpayers, secured Royal Mail’s commercial future and put shares in the hands of many of the company’s toiling employees.

Miliband was undeterred, querying a “gentleman’s agreement” according to which City investors pledged not to cash in their Royal Mail stakes early in pursuit of a quick windfall. Half had already done just that, according to the opposition leader. At that point the Prime Minister’s nails reached the bottom of his barrel of arguments and out came the sound of scraping: “We know why he’s asking these questions – because he’s paid to by the trade unions.”

When the question was repeated, Cameron veered even further off topic, quoting from a job advertisement for an advisor in Miliband’s office and using it as a pretext to highlight recent reports of division and anxiety in Labour’s upper echelons. That the opposition is not currently singing in immaculate harmony is self-evident but raising it as a desperate non-sequitur didn’t help the Prime Minister. Nor did his efforts to denigrate Miliband’s jdugement by reference to his old proximity to Gordon Brown (another perennial barrel-scraper). The reminder that Labour had once tried and failed to privatise Royal Mail too probed the source of some opposition awkwardness on this issue. The assertion that the party’s 2010 manifesto had included such a plan earned approving jeers from Tory MPs. It was, however, untrue.

Ultimately, Miliband won the exchange because he made a consistent and coherent argument: that the Tories flogged off a prized state asset at “mates rates” for the benefit of their “friends in the City”, while Cameron responded with indiscriminate denigration, slipping at one point into abuse. “Muppet” is not the most elevated jibe to have been recorded in Hansard. (No doubt Tories will be similarly disapproving of Miliband’s reference to the PM as the “The Dunce of Downing Street” but at least that was  part of a compound insult with a flicker of rhetorical imagination – “Not so much the Wolf of Wall Street but …”) Miliband's friends have told me he knows PMQs is working well when he succeeds in provoking Cameron's temper, which can be easily measured because the Prime Minister's face flushes when he is annoyed, as he was today. "As red as a post box," jeered the Labour leader, a little gratuitously.

The privatisation of Royal Mail is an issue of limited political benefit to Labour, since the opposition is stuck with the sale as a fait accompli. Re-nationalisation isn’t on the agenda. But Miliband has judged, probably correctly, that the public doesn’t like the smell of the deal and doesn’t trust the Tories to have carried it out with the right motives or with the right people’s interests at heart. It is also something that, judging by today’s performance, provokes real moral outrage in the Labour leader and that can be a good look for him. The same cannot be said of the Prime Minister.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times