David Cameron holds a press conference at the end of the two-day European Council summit at the EU headquarters in Brussels on 21 March 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Cameron should be wary of playing to the eurosceptic gallery

The PM's blast against Jean-Claude Juncker delighted his MPs - but he'll let them down in the end.

Today's PMQs was one of those statesmanlike occasions that could be summarised as "Does the prime minister agree with me that the world is a dangerous place?" Ed Miliband devoted all six of his questions to the crisis in Iraq, with no hint of disagreement with Cameron. The PM used the session to announce that humanitarian aid to the country would be increased from £3m to £5m and hit back at the isolationists in his party and others by insisting that Britain would be "playing its role". While declaring that "it would be a mistake to believe that the only answer to these problems is the hard attack of direct intervention", he added: "I'd also disagree with those people who think this is nothing to do with us and if they want to have some sort of extreme Islamist regime in the middle of Iraq, that won't affect us. It will."

In response to Miliband's question on Iran, in which he supported the reopening of the British embassy but warned that the country "does not support a vision for a democratic and inclusive state in Iraq", Cameron replied that the rapprochement with Iran should be done on "a step-by-step basis" and "with a very clear eye and a very hard head" due to the "appalling things" that happened to the British embassy in 2011.

It was an appropriately serious-minded and sober exchange, later unwisely attacked by the Tory Treasury Twitter account, which tweeted: "Another week with no question from Ed Miliband on the economy. No credibility and no #longtermeconomicplan"

The most politically notable moment of the session, aside from Peter Tapsell's quixotic call for parliament to impeach Tony Blair for war crimes, came when Cameron was asked about Jean-Claude Juncker's bid to become EU commission president. After Labour's Ben Bradshaw mockingly asked how his campaign to stop Juncker was going, Cameron seized the opportunity to deliver a eurosceptic blast against the arch-federalist. He declared:

I don't mind how many people on the European Council disagree with me: I will fight this right to the very end. And what I would say to my colleagues on the European Council, many of whom have expressed interesting views about both this principle and this person, if you want reform in Europe you've got to stand up for it. If you want a change in Europe, you've got to vote for it. That is the message I will take and that is the right message for this country.

The Tory backbenches lapped it up, crying "more, more!", but Cameron should be wary of playing to the eurosceptic gallery. If he fails in his bid to block Juncker's candidacy, a significant number of them will view that as a good reason to leave the EU altogether, but he will not. The gap between Cameron, who ultimately believes that EU membership is a positive good for Britain, and the anti-EU fanatics on the Tory benches remains as wide as ever. He should not fall into the trap of trying to appease the unappeasable.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Brexit confusion is scuppering my show – what next?

My week, from spinning records with Baconface, Brexit block and visiting comedy graves.

I am a stand-up comedian, and I am in the process of previewing a new live show, which I hope to tour until early 2018. It was supposed to be about how the digital, free-market society is reshaping the idea of the individual, but we are in the pre-Brexit events whirlpool, and there has never been a worse time to try to assemble a show that will still mean anything in 18 months’ time.



A joke written six weeks ago about dep­orting eastern Europeans, intended to be an exaggeration for comic effect, suddenly just reads like an Amber Rudd speech – or, as James O’Brien pointed out on LBC, an extract from Mein Kampf.

A rude riff on Sarah Vine and 2 Girls 1 Cup runs aground because there are fewer people now who remember Vine than recall the briefly notorious Brazilian video clip. I realise that something that gets a cheer on a Tuesday in Harrogate, or Glasgow, or Oxford, could get me lynched the next night in Lincoln. Perhaps I’ll go into the fruit-picking business. I hear there’s about to be some vacancies.



I sit and stare at blocks of text, wondering how to knit them into a homogeneous whole. But it’s Sunday afternoon, a time for supervising homework and finding sports kit. My 11-year-old daughter has a school project on the Victorians and she has decided to do it on dead 19th-century comedians, as we had recently been on a Music Hall Guild tour of their graves at the local cemetery. I wonder if, secretly, she wished I would join them.

I have found living with the background noise of this project depressing. The headstones that she photographed show that most of the performers – even the well-known Champagne Charlie – barely made it past 40, while the owners of the halls outlived them. Herbert Campbell’s obelisk is vast and has the word “comedian” written on it in gold leaf, but it’s in the bushes and he is no longer remembered. Neither are many of the acts I loved in the 1980s – Johnny Immaterial, Paul Ramone, the Iceman.



I would have liked to do some more work on the live show but, one Monday a month, I go to the studios of the largely volunteer-run arts radio station Resonance FM in Borough, south London. Each Wednesday night at 11pm, the masked Canadian stand-up comedian Baconface presents selections from his late brother’s collection of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s jazz, psychedelia, folk, blues and experimental music. I go in to help him pre-record the programmes.

Baconface is a fascinating character, whom I first met at the Cantaloupes Comedy Club in Kamloops in British Columbia in 1994. He sees the radio show as an attempt to atone for his part in his brother’s death, which was the result of a prank gone wrong involving nudity and bacon, though he is often unable to conceal his contempt for the music that he is compelled to play.

The show is recorded in a small, hot room and Baconface doesn’t change the bacon that his mask is made of very often, so the experience can be quite claustrophobic. Whenever we lose tapes or the old vinyl is too warped to play, he just sits back and utters his resigned, philosophical catchphrase, “It’s all bacon!” – which I now find myself using, as I watch the news, with ­depressing regularity.



After the kids go to sleep, I sit up alone and finally watch The Lady in the Van. Last year, I walked along the street in Camden where it was being filmed, and Alan Bennett talked to me, which was amazing.

About a month later, on the same street, we saw Jonathan Miller skirting some dog’s mess and he told me and the kids how annoyed it made him. I tried to explain to them afterwards who Jonathan Miller was, but to the five-year-old the satire pioneer will always be the Shouting Dog’s Mess Man.



I have the second of the final three preview shows at the intimate Leicester Square Theatre in London before the new show, Content Provider, does a week in big rooms around the country. Today, I was supposed to do a BBC Radio 3 show about improvised music but both of the kids were off school with a bug and I had to stay home mopping up. In between the vomiting, in the psychic shadow of the improvisers, I had something of a breakthrough. The guitarist Derek Bailey, for example, would embrace his problems and make them part of the performance.



I drank half a bottle of wine before going on stage, to give me the guts to take some risks. It’s not a long-term strategy for creative problem-solving, and that way lies wandering around Southend with a pet chicken. But by binning the words that I’d written and trying to repoint them, in the moment, to be about how the Brexit confusion is blocking my route to the show I wanted to write, I can suddenly see a way forward. The designer is in, with samples of a nice coat that she is making for me, intended to replicate the clothing of the central figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 German masterpiece Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.



Richard Branson is on the internet and, just as I’d problem-solved my way around writing about it, he’s suggesting that Brexit might not happen. I drop the kids off and sit in a café reading Alan Moore’s new novel, Jerusalem. I am interviewing him about it for the Guardian in two weeks’ time. It’s 1,174 pages long, but what with the show falling apart I have read only 293 pages. Next week is half-term. I’ll nail it. It’s great, by the way, and seems to be about the small lives of undocumented individuals, buffeted by the random events of their times.

Stewart Lee’s show “Content Provider” will be on in London from 8 November. For more details, visit: stewartlee.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage