Ed Miliband speaks at the Science Museum on July 3, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband exploits the coalition divide on anti-terror powers

The Labour leader drove a wedge between Cameron and Clegg on civil liberties.

After the beheading of a second US journalist by Isis, and the threat to murder a British hostage, the first PMQs of the new term was an appropriately sombre occasion. David Cameron and Ed Miliband both delivered powerful condemnations of the terrorist group, the former declaring "A country like ours will not be cowed by these barbaric killers" and the latter speaking of a "universal sense of revulsion". 

After asking Cameron what the UK was doing to mobilise nations in the region against Isis and how it would use its chairing of the UN Security Council (avoiding the issue of whether the UK will take part in US-led airstrikes), Miliband moved on to the thorny issue of the coalition's domestic response. After the confusion that followed Cameron's statement on anti-terror powers on Monday, with the Lib Dems casting doubt over the plans announced by the PM, Miliband challenged him to confirm whether the reintroduction of relocation powers for terrorist suspects (forcing them to move home) would go ahead. In response, Cameron said that "it will go ahead", despite the Lib Dems briefing on Monday that "We have not definitively signed up to introducing relocation powers. We have agreed to look in detail at the options". While repeating his promise of cross-party talks on the issue, the PM's words appeared to be another attempt to bounce the Lib Dems into support. 

Miliband then asked Cameron whether his proposal to block British jihadists from returning home would be legally permissible (Clegg commented yesterday that "At the moment it is not obvious what one can do in a way which is consistent with our legal obligations". He replied: "I do believe it is legally permissible, but it’s going to require some work". In other words, the situation is no clearer than it was earlier this week. But Miliband's intervention effectively drove a wedge between the coalition parties on civil liberties. On an issue as significant as national security, the impression of a divided government is damaging for Cameron. 

The two other notable points from the session were the passion with which Cameron made the case against Scottish independence, and the increasingly perilous position of the Speaker, John Bercow. On Scotland, after a YouGov poll showed the Yes campaign just six points behind, the PM denounced the SNP's scaremongering over the NHS ("The only person who can privatise the NHS in Scotland is Alex Salmond") and its "chilling" threat to default on its share of the national debt.

In response to Tory MP Edward Leigh, who warned that a Yes vote would be "a national humiliation of catastrophic proportions" and who urged the party leaders to drop everything and stand "shoulder to shoulder" in defence of the Union, Cameron said: "The leaders of the parties in this House have all put aside their differences and said ‘in spite of the political differences we have, we all agree about one thing – not just that Scotland is better off inside the UK, the UK is better off with Scotland." Despite his party's enfeebled status in Scotland, today's exchanges were a reminder that Cameron is one of the most powerful defenders of the Union. 

After PMQs had concluded, Bercow faced a barrage of points of order from Tory MPs over the disputed appointment of Carol Mills as Clerk of the House. Such was the ferocity with which they attacked the Speaker (who many have long loathed since his election under Labour) that Edward Leigh was forced to urge the House to respect his authority. While most believe Bercow will ride the row out, his position has never looked so weak; irrevocable damage has now been done to his standing in the Commons.

Update: The Lib Dems have just issued a response to Cameron's comments on anti-terror powers. On blocking British suspects from returning home, a spokesman said:

"This issue remains under discussion in government and we have always said that we would be prepared to sign up to something that was both legal and practical."

"This is a very legally complicated issue and needs to be examined very closely."

And on relocation powers, he said:

“The issue of introducing relocation powers remains under discussion in government. We have agreed to look in detail at the options available to us.

“The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson, whose views we respect, recently recommended that the Government look at locational constraints that can be put on TPIMs suspects to make it easier to disrupt their networks and to reduce the risk of absconding.

“As a result, the Liberal Democrats are willing to look in more detail at options, including at whether the use of exclusion zones under the existing legislation could be expanded to meet the concerns that Anderson raises.”

As I expected, both suggest a far more ambiguous situation than Cameron's words implied. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era