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12 October 2011

PMQs sketch: Dave’s confidence in the absent Dr F

If the Chancellor's face is anything to go by, Liam Fox should check out the rent of a Parisian garr

By Peter McHugh

L’Affaire Renard boarded the early train to France this morning as the Defence Secretary added Paris to the not-very-long list of capital cities where he has not met up with Adam Werrity for “transactional behaviour”.

His absence from the country set a pall of gloom upon the House of Commons where members were looking forward to getting back to work after their latest break with a bit of blood sports. Instead they were forced to spend a few minutes discussing the worst unemployment figures for 17 years and a monthly rise in the jobless total of 100,000, but you could tell their heart was not in it. What they really wanted to talk about was the unemployment prospects of just one: the member for North Somerset.

Ed Milliband made a valiant attempt to speak on behalf of the millions on the dole, with the enthusiastic support of his alter-Ed, the Shadow Chancellor. But his demands for a spending boost to the economy fell on the deaf ears of the Prime Minister, who, having admitted the jobs picture was “disappointing”, looked nervous but relieved that so far Labour had not mentioned absent friends.

As it was, the Government benches looked like a family outing for The Glums. Up front, were Foreign Secretary William Hague — who has had his own previous in this regard — and the Chancellor George Osborne, so often described as the Prime Minister’s touch-stone in times of trouble. If the Chancellor’s face is anything to go by, Liam Fox should check out the rents of Parisian garrets.

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Talking of faces, the mood clearly affected Dave’s deputy Nick who looked as if he had discovered some rather distasteful odour not too far from his nose. As he munched his lonely way through his croque monsieur at lunchtime, Dr Fox no doubt ruminated on the wise words of Harold Wilson that a week is indeed a long time in politics: a thought that must have crossed the mind of the only member of the front bench with a small smile playing about his lips. There he sat, bold as brass, hush puppies cosied up to the kitten heels of the woman who only seven days ago he accused of being as economical with the truth as some have charged the Secretary of State for Defence.

A week ago — even a few days ago — he was up for the chop, but there he was; Justice Secretary Ken Clarke at Prime Ministers Questions, cheek by jowl, if not cheek by cheek, with Home Secretary Theresa May, his new best friend.

Ken, who looked as if he had spent the night on the bench preparing for the occasion, chatted away with Theresa as if oblivious to the fact that once again he had been saved by “events dear boy, events”.

Ed M eventually got around to the crack about Fox he had clearly been practicing all morning, accusing the PM of being more interested in protecting the Defence Secretary’s job than that anyone else. Labour cheered, the Tories jeered and the Lib Dems seemed happy not to make eye contact.

As PMQs stuttered on it was clearly Labour’s plan to keep the pot boiling with other references to the globe-trotting behaviour of Mr Werrity and his friend Liam. But Dave, who earlier in the year let it be known there would be no early Cabinet re-shuffle (he was always willing to make an exception for Ken), was having none of it. He said the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell — who announced yesterday he too was off asap –should be allowed to get on with his inquiry into the affair; although no one is saying there was one, as it were.

In fact, Dave repeated his confidence in the work of Dr Fox with all of the assuredness of football club chairmen down the ages. “It is for the Prime Minister to decide if a Minister keeps his job”, he said rather bravely, as if the halloo’s of Fleet Street will be ignored.

As so often, it took Labour’s Keith Vaz to bring the House back to reality with a question about changing the rules of royal succession “to stop boys taking precedence”.

Like L’Affaire Renard, this one could run and run.

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