David Cameron delivers a speech to business leaders at a conference in the Old Granada TV Studios on January 8, 2015 in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Cameron's Green shield protects him from Miliband's TV debates attack

The PM's charge that the Labour leader was running scared of the Greens allowed him to avoid humiliation. 

The debate about the debates came to today's PMQs. After David Cameron's self-interested declaration that he won't participate unless the Greens are included, Ed Miliband wryly reminded him of what "a party leader" said in 2010: "It would have been feeble to find some excuse to back out. So I thought we've got to stick at this. We've got to do it." Cameron replied by merely restating his original position: "You cannot have two minor parties [the Lib Dems and Ukip] without the third minor party" (a line that prompted a cry of pain from Nick Clegg). He added: "So I put the question to him, why is he so frightened of debating the Green Party?"

It was, as Miliband later said, "a pathetic excuse". But it was enough for Cameron to make it through the session without humiliation. To the PM's charge that he was "chicken" when it comes to the Greens, Miliband reasonably replied that it was up to the broadcasters who they invite. But this sidestep, avoiding the direct question of whether he thinks the Greens should be included, allowed Cameron to score some points.

The Labour leader delivered the best line when he declared in his final question: "In the words of his heroine, Lady Thatcher, he is frit." But Cameron revealed his calculation when he responded by changing the subject to the economy: "He can't talk about unemployment because it's coming down. He can't talk about growth and the economy because it's going up. He can't talk about his energy price freeze because it's turned into a total joke. I have to say to him, Mr Speaker, the more time he and I can spend in a television studio and on television, the happier I will be. But please, if he's got any more questions left, ask a serious one." 

Cameron's accurate belief is that voters are largely uninterested in a process-centred row about the TV debates. As pollsters like to say, the issue lacks "salience". Few, if any, will change their votes based on whether or not Cameron takes part in TV debates. Scarred by the experience of 2010, when Nick Clegg stole his insurgent mantle, he has calculated that the political cost of avoiding the debates is lower than the cost of participating (and allowing Miliband and Nigel Farage to land easy hits on him). Today's PMQs showed that Cameron is relaxed about riding out this argument. 

Meanwhile, the Tories are now briefing that Cameron is prepared to take part in a five-way debate (the three main party leaders, Ukip and the Greens) and a head-to-head with Miliband, but not a three-way debate with the Labour leader and Clegg. The reason for this stance is easily identified: a debate between the two coalition leaders and Miliband would allow the latter to play the outsider - the role that so aided Clegg in 2010. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Randian Republican who could rein in Trump isn’t a coward – he’s much worse

Paul Ryan's refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Poor ol’ Paul Ryan. For a few brief hours on 27 January, a week after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the Wikipedia entry for “invertebrates” – which defines them as “animals that neither possess nor develop a vertebral column (commonly known as a backbone or spine)” – was amended to include a smiling picture of the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The online prank reflected a growing consensus among critics of Ryan: confronted by a boorish and authoritarian president plagued by multiple conflicts of interest, the House Speaker has behaved in a craven and spineless manner. Ryan, goes the conventional wisdom, is a coward.

Yet as is so often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Ryan’s deafening silence over Trump’s egregious excesses has little to do with pusillanimity. It’s much worse than that. The House Speaker is not a coward; he is a shameless opportunist. His refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Long before Trump arrived on the scene with his wacky “birther” conspiracies, Ryan was the undisputed star of the GOP; the earnest, number-crunching wunderkind of the right. He was elected to Congress in 1998, aged 28; by 2011, he was head of the House budget committee; by 2012, he was Mitt Romney’s running mate; by 2015, he was Speaker of the House – and third in line for the presidency – at the grand old age of 45.

The Wisconsin congressman has been hailed in the conservative media as the “man with a plan”, the “intellectual leader of the Republican Party”, the “conscience” of the GOP. Yet, again and again, in recent years, he has been singularly unsuccessful in enacting his legislative agenda.

And what kind of agenda might that be? Why, an Ayn Rand-inspired agenda, of course. You know Rand, right? The hero of modern-day libertarians, self-described “radical for capitalism” and author of the dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged. As one of her acolytes wrote to her: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”

Ryan is an ideologue who insists on giving copies of Atlas Shrugged to interns in his congressional office. In 2005 he told a gathering of Rand fans, called the Atlas Society, that “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand”.

Rolling back the evil state while balancing the budget on the backs of the feckless poor, in true Randian fashion, has always been Ryan’s primary goal. Even Newt Gingrich, who served as Republican House Speaker for five years in the 1990s, once decried Ryan’s proposals to privatise Medicare ­– the popular federal health insurance programme that covers people over the age of 65 – as “right-wing social engineering”.

These days, Ryan has a useful idiot in the White House to help him pull off the right-wing social engineering that he couldn’t pull off on his own. Trump, who doesn’t do detail or policy, is content, perhaps even keen, to outsource his domestic agenda to the policy wonk from Wisconsin.

The Speaker has made his deal with the devil: a reckless and racist demagogue, possibly in cahoots with Russia, can trample over the law, erode US democratic norms and embarrass the country, and the party, at home and abroad. And in return? Ryan gets top-rate tax cuts. To hell with the constitution.

Trump, lest we forget, ran as an insurgent against the Republican establishment during the primaries, loudly breaking with hard-right GOP orthodoxy on issues such as infrastructure spending (Trump promised more), health-care reform (Trump promised coverage for all) and Medicaid (Trump promised no cuts). It was all a charade, a con. And Ryan knew it. The Speaker may have been slow to endorse Trump but when he did so, last June, he made it clear that “on the issues that make up our agenda, we have more common ground than disagreement”.

A year later, Ryan has been vindicated: free trade deals aside, Trump is governing as a pretty conventional, hard-right conservative. Consider the first important budget proposal from the Trump administration, published on 23 May. For Ryan, it’s a Randian dream come true: $800bn slashed from Medicaid, which provides health care to low-income Americans, plus swingeing cuts to Snap (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, aka food stamps), Chip (the Children’s Health Insurance Programme) and SSDI (disability insurance).

In Trump, Ryan and his fellow anti-government hardliners in Congress have found the perfect frontman to enact their reverse-Robin Hood economic agenda: a self-declared, rhetorical champion of white, working-class voters whose actual Ryan-esque policies – on tax cuts, health care, Wall Street regulation and the rest – bolster only the billionaire class at their expense.

Don’t be distracted by all the scandals: the president has been busy using his tiny hands to sign a wide array of bills, executive orders and judicial appointments that have warmed the cold hearts of the Republican hard right.

Impeachment, therefore, remains a liberal fantasy – despite everything we’re discovering about Russia, Michael Flynn, James Comey and the rest. Does anyone seriously expect this Republican-dominated House of Representatives to bring articles of impeachment against Trump? With Paul Ryan in charge of it? Don’t. Be. Silly.

Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor. He is based in Washington, DC

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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