Dave and Gove on the Backbenches

BACKBENCH DAVID CAMERON MICHAEL GOVE

Michael Gove, flanked by his campaign chief Nick Boles, making interventions from the backbenches this afternoon. No going on holiday or Gordon Brown disappearing act from Dave, who sat three rows back from the new Prime Minister. His attention wavered briefly when he started playing with his phone. Another happy reader…

Cameron on Labour: “And I Thought I Was Having A Bad Day”

Even McDonnell had a chuckle at that one…

Chancellor Rasputin Lurks in the Shadows

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And so today saw the Chancellor grace us with his first PMQs appearance for almost a month. Such reticence from the man is common these days. George Osborne is becoming increasingly Rasputin-eqsue. In the shadows he lurks, wielding power over the Tsar, dripping poison in his ear and making outlandish predictions for the future. “I’ll eradicate the debt and cut the deficit” he’ll whisper, “each family will be four thousand three hundred pounds worse off if we leave” he’ll hiss. And when his untruths and false promises are questioned, he retreats from view, leaving the ruler to lumber in on his behalf to placate the angry and ignored. Of course any man who knows his Russian history knows how this story ends. Old Rasputin was poisoned, shot, bludgeoned, and drowned by those angered by his influence, with the entire saga only further weakening the regime he was so bound up with and hastening its collapse. One wonders how long is till Osborne, like the Russian, washes up on the banks of the Thames, peppered with bullet holes but still faintly breathing, sighing “long… term… economic… plan”.

Onto proceedings. Nigel Adams got things underway by praising the “dignity and grace” of her Maj ahead of the big Nine O tomorrow, a day that promised to be “a proper knees up” at the very least. The PM reiterated the Selby MP’s sentiments, before laying a trap for his opposite number. “I know the whole country and the whole house”, Cameron innocently opined, “will want to join me in saying, Long may she reign o’er us”. Corbyn wouldn’t play ball. “Thank you Mr. Speaker”, he replied plainly, “I am also looking forward to wishing her a happy birthday tomorrow, notably missing out any celebration of the continuation of her reign. In other words, have a good one Liz, but don’t have too many more.

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SKETCH: Waiting Watson and Blissed Out Osborne

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As we endured the latest round of this miserably one-sided fight, my mind turned to the two men sitting to the left of their respective leaders.

It’s a decent bet (the double pays 22/1 with Paddy Power) that George Osborne and Tom Watson will be the next leaders of their parties, and will one day be squaring off against each other on these Wednesday lunchtimes, which would at least be more unpredictable.

Tom was doing his usual thing today, or at least his usual thing since he became Jeremy Corbyn’s deputy: utterly silent, smiling inscrutably, a look of faint amusement and utter detachment on his face.

The only times his lips tightened were when a backbench MP used Corbyn’s gaffe-a-thon with Andrew Marr on Sunday to allow the Prime Minister one of several free and gleeful hits on Trident, secondary picketing, and the Falklands, the latter a comradely gift from the DUP’s Nigel Dodds.

Obviously it wouldn’t do for Tom to smile when David Cameron is shoeing the poor, defenceless old man sitting next to him, but you wonder if these are also the moments when he realises Corbyn cannot go on much longer like this, and ponders being up at the despatch box himself very soon.

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PMQs SKETCH: Corbyn Goes From Angry Chicken to Sick Chicken

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The stare isn’t going so well suddenly. It never worked, it only seemed to, with the Tories falling back in embarrassment. Corbyn read this as bullies being struck with silent wonder at the sight of proper, grown-up politics.

No, it was the reaction of an audience seeing an actor forgetting his lines, or a juggler dropping the ball, or a magician letting the cards fall out of his sleeve.

Tories weren’t able to barrack and wince at the same time.

But they’ve learnt. They have evolved. Today, they overcame their instinctive delicacy and resumed normal service.

And Corbyn went from Angry Chicken to Sick Chicken. Starting to speak, then stopping. Glaring, but getting confused by laughter and not-glaring. Glancing at the Speaker. No help there. Starting to speak again and having to continue through Tories shushing each other.

This chicken dies in the end.

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PMQs SKETCH: Corbyn’s Chicken Death Stare

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People say he’s not doing too badly, and he’s not doing too badly for an old man in a pub, for a clapped-out author wearying a school assembly, for a hero of the previous revolution but one (second class).

He’s obviously pleased with his “death stare”. When Tories barrack him (and they really haven’t started) he stops and stares at them in a way that chickens stop and stare at things. Eventually circumstances change and the chicken goes back to its pecking. The whips have told Tories not to be too nasty to Corbyn so they quieten down. He mistakes correlation for causation.

The poor old piece of poultry, he’s not just second-rate but secondhand, reusing the failed tropes of failed leaders for the past 15 years. “This is Prime Minister’s QUESTIONS”, and I’ve asked the same question five times, and (quoting one sort of Tory) “Why did he say that?”, and (quoting another sort) “Where was she wrong?”

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PMQs SKETCH: Corbyn’s Vogue Levels of Virtue-Signalling

He’s doing it deliberately, isn’t he? The twisted tie and splayed collar and that ghaaaaastly coat and shirt combination. The vanity of being above appearances. The Labour leader is manifesting Vogue levels of virtue-signalling in his dress.

Then all that rubbish about the “very sad news” of having a United Nations committee coming over to investigate the human rights of the disabled. It was “deeply embarrassing”, he said. Cameron classified that as left-wing cack and that proper Britons couldn’t give two flying fingers for a UN committee (I translate). The miserablisation of Labour continues.

Still, Corbyn’s better than Miliband. And better than the next leader (as long that’s Eddie Izzard).

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Like Cockroaches, the Corbynista Swarm Survives

Fat Labour loosened its corsets but couldn’t fill its benches. Many gaps in the ranks. Opposition MPs were wandering Westminster in a daze of incredulous despair and failed to find their way into the chamber.

Many of them will fail to find their way back into the House at the next election.

Their constituencies are being swamped with aliens who don’t share their values or culture and who are swarming over their General Committees to vote in others of their kind. They stick together, those Trots. Boy, do they breed. And like cockroaches, they survive.

They must have been pleased to see the end of Harriet Harman. It was her last stand-in at PMQs. She finishes her career surprisingly as a crypto-Tory. Cameron paid her a handsome tribute (being one of his own) and she missed the opportunity to cry shame! Shame! Shame on you! Her sharpest point was a suggestion he call for a summit of EU leaders to deal with the refugee crisis (as if he could).

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Budget Sketch: Osborne Speaks to the Tory Soul

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The first Tory budget in 18 years prompts a mass Die-In outside parliament.

Inside the Commons it’s a mass Die-In of the Labour party .

Osborne’s hour didn’t just make the political weather it changed the political climate.

Harriet Harman’s response began by lamenting the non-electrification of the Midlands mainline.

Mind you, she’d just been hit by a train.

Benefits. Subsidies. Tax. Pay.

Gordon Brown’s transformative budgets were written in an age of boom and borrowing. Osborne has achieved the same scale of change in an age of austerity.

Every Labour fox was destroyed. Not just shot but run over with a combine harvester.

Never mind deciles and target audiences and the calculus of electoral investment – Osborne has destroyed the opposition. And in an act of retrospective slaughter he destroyed Ed Miliband’s opposition as well.

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PMQs SKETCH: If this is war it’s extremely polite

We’re just waiting, aren’t we? Just starting the second trimester. The labour for Labour is months away but Harriet is very sensibly taking things easy. In the autumn, she’s hoping for the great cry, “It’s a girl!” Pessimists in the centre are expecting, “It’s a boy!” But realists anticipate a great rush of wind and the announcement, “Sorry everyone. Phantom pregnancy. Back to the mattresses and start again.”

In the interim, Harriet seems to have lost the will even to “stick it to the Tories.” Her first question asked him how he could stick it to the French. Tempting question for an English prime minister. He stuck it to the Italians instead. Her second question asked him if “he could say a bit more about strengthening security,” and he said there was “no point in pointing the finger of blame.” If this is war it’s extremely polite. It’s the other sort of civil war.

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A Glimpse Into the Sort of PMQs Bercow is Trying to Make the Norm

So, there’s a prime minister in waiting. Gallery reports of his sneeriness should be discounted.

True, even when he isn’t sneering, he still wears a sub-cutaneous sneer, an impression of a sneer, some sort of metaphysical sneer plays around him like the smile of Lewis Carroll’s cat. But for us in the television audience, George Osborne was controlled, confident and across all that stuff prime ministers have to pretend to know about.

Deradicalisation, for instance. By a happy chance, his prepared joke about Hilary Benn prefaced his remarks on the teenage suicide bomber who blew himself up. For a jihadist to be remembered in Parliament as an adjunct to an indifferent joke about Labour party Bennites is a very fitting memorial.

The deputy leader of Labour is now the leader and her deputy seems to be this Benn fellow. He produced a series of sensible, dutiful questions which got the Commons talking excitedly (about who was winning what election for which committee chair). It’s a glimpse into the sort of PMQs that Speaker Bercow is trying to make the norm. Nothing will turn people off politics more thoroughly.

It’s still possible to hope Jeremy Corbyn will be up there at the despatch box after the Conferences. Are there 50,000 mental lefties out there? Democratic jihadists who’ll infiltrate the Labour Party and blow it to glory?

Now more than ever we need the audacity of hope.

At any rate – an utterly uneventful afternoon in which Tory spines were stiffened at the prospect of a plausible successor and a Tory government through the 20s.

If this was his audition for First Lord of the Treasury he’ll certainly get a call-back.

PMQ’s SKETCH: Where Was the Eton Gloating Song?

Harriet was always going to use that line about gloating.

The PM is back to his easy, lordly form. He deflected hostile questions (“It’s an important point she raises.”) He congratulated opposition MPs. He made a pretty decent UKIP joke that made Douglas Carswell laugh – “He has made political history. As a party of one he’s had a backbench rebellion.”

He has all the characteristics the country expects from a decent, moderate Conservative. So Harriet had her work cut out to make a sow’s ear out of the silk purse that is our prime minister.

She had it all worked out. She was going to define him in the public mind before he could define himself.

At the outset he had made laughing reference to Labour MPs voting for an EU referendum. He called the occasion “the biggest mass conversion since that Chinese general baptised his troops with a hosepipe.” He could have said anything. It didn’t matter what it was. In defiance of what was happening in front of her, Harriet came back with the one she had already prepared: She said: “He won the election. He’s the prime minister.” (Huge Tory cheers. So far, so accurate.) “He doesn’t need to be ranting and sneering and gloating . . .”

As ranting, it didn’t qualify. The sneering was absent. And the Eton Gloating Song hadn’t even got to the humming stage.

But it was very Labour.

Setting out to fit facts to theory, no matter what the reality. Continue reading

PMQs SKETCH: New Parliament, Old PMQs

With the arrival of 182 new MPs, two new TV camera angles and a new hierarchy for old party rivals, you might have been forgiven for hoping that the first Prime Minister’s Questions of the new Parliament would herald a new dawn in British politics.

But, like the party manifestos of the election campaign just a few short weeks ago, PMQs promised a lot but delivered very little.

In all honesty, it was never going to be a tough one for David Cameron.

Still puffed up from his election victory, with crowded benches of grateful Tory MPs behind him and bewildered Labour members opposite, no one expected to land a punch on Cameron today.

It was all change on the green leather benches around him, with Tory MPs crowding onto the seats previously occupied by their erstwhile Liberal Democrat colleagues, SNP MPs smirking from the seats where Labour used to sit and the last remaining Liberal Democrats desperately trying to find anywhere to sit at all.

That said, Nick Clegg looked only marginally less miserable squeezed onto his backbench pew than he did when he sat stony-faced next to David Cameron as his deputy for five long years.

Harriet Harman, meanwhile, standing at the despatch box as Labour’s interim leader – for the second time in her career – looked like she wished her pink battle bus would arrive to whisk her away anywhere but here.

Despite rumours that the diminished Labour ranks would now get only four questions, Harman got the usual six, although she would probably have preferred the Liberal Democrats’ allocation of just one question every few weeks – and, frankly, so did everyone else.

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PM Surveys Muddy Waters as Dragons Lurk

Dave’s visit to Chester Zoo was a sketchwriters’ wet dream.

The only animals were dragons behind his shoulder (on the left in the picture above).

The PM stared pensively into muddy waters.

Exclusive to all newspaper sketchwriters tomorrow…

What Vengeance Bercow Will Deliver

Speaking for the sore losers – that was the most partisan act of chairmanship ever seen in the Commons.

Through the Urgent Question before and the debate itself, Bercow called almost no one who would speak in favour of the Motion.

Twenty-odd Tories of the Speaker’s party swung the vote in his favour.

And now Bercow is the most powerful man in Parliament. When the House reconvenes, there probably won’t even be a cry against his re-eclection (and as Gerald Kaufman is likely to be Father of the House, any cry made will probably go unheard).

He is immoveable now. He will serve the whole of the coming parliament and probably go well into the following one. 

What a vengeance he will deliver! It will almost be worth the watching…

Speaker Delays Vote as Labour Recall MPs to Westminster

The Speaker in the chair just now looks like he’s been awake for a hundred years. He is not taking the news of today’s Motion in the spirit of democracy.

The Government wants to make the re-election of the Speaker a secret vote. It is a very tender subject.

Elections and re-elections of all other chairs is by a secret vote. This is as it should be.

The re-election of the Speaker is the one exception – it was a deal done between the Speaker and Harriet Harman at the end of the last parliament.

What reckless MP would vote against a sitting Speaker in an open ballot?

This Speaker is vengeful, political, and partisan. Anyone voting against him would fear they’d never be called again.

The House is sentimental, conservative and respectful. A sitting Speaker has an enormous power of incumbency.  A secret ballot is the only way of fairly holding a Speaker in check.

The fact that Labour is spitting tacks – and the fact they refer to Bercow as “our Speaker” – shows how partisan this issue is.

Labour have put a three-line whip on and are recalling Members from their constituencies. Protecting their Speaker is more important than fighting the election.

Knowing the depth and extent of Bercow’s artistry – is there any way, by some procedural trick that he can stop this Motion being voted on? “There’s nothing in the book to allow it,” says one who knows, “but then, he writes the book.”

Bercow has scheduled three UQs. This will at least give time for Labour MPs to get back from their constituencies.

Speaker Watch will be watching how this plays out during the day.

FINAL PMQs SKETCH: Commons Warns to Valedictory Dave

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There behind the PM were the Home Secretary looking sly, the Chancellor looking cruel and the Chief Whip looking even more pleased with himself than usual. Hard to imagine the Tories’ broadening their appeal with any of them.

Cameron was entirely relaxed, amiable, in charge. He flattened Miliband with his tax avoidance answers (no rise in VAT, he promised, I wonder how he’ll get out of that . . . oh! By resigning just before the rise!). He praised certain opposition members, teased them, laughed along with them. The Commons rather warmed to him and his valedictory ways.

Win or lose, Cameron has created and for five years held together an unlikely coalition and presided over an amazing period of job creation.

Gallery witnesses report Mrs Cameron and their daughter were up in the gallery, and little Nancy was punching the air when her father made some crushing sally. She might have felt superior in mental age to the scenes below. At the phrase “Alex Salmond’s poodle” the House went “Woof woof! Woof woof! Woof woof woof!”

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Speaker Watch: Bad Bercow’s Jesse Norman Low Blow

The Speaker has been behaving with almost perfect professionalism all this year. He knows his moment of mortal danger is approaching and is palliating his enemies in the House. But Bad Bercow can’t be kept down. He looked around the chamber this afternoon and saw his old enemy Jesse Norman (No. 14 on the order paper) not in his place. So very early, and well out of the running order, he called him. “Jesse Norman!” Nothing. “Jesse NORMAN! Is he not here?” He wasn’t going to take the chance that Norman had been momentarily delayed and would be in shortly.

Norman was a moving spirit of the Governance committee that humiliated Bercow in the fiasco of the new clerk’s appointment. “Got him!” Bercow would have thought.

The rush of applause that greeted Lindsay Hoyle taking the chair for the Budget debate shows that there is a popular contender for the position. A candidate makes the difference. Although Bercow seems to be carrying all before him, it is still possible to hope.

UPDATE: Guido understands that Norman was slightly delayed by a bicycle puncture.

Budget Day Sketch: Our Salad Days Lie Ahead

Runners-up for best Miliband joke: The prime minister’s: “He threw the kitchen sinks at the NHS and that didn’t work.” (Groans.) Balls wants to be in his kitchen cabinet but doesn’t know which one. (Groans.) “He literally doesn’t know where his next meal’s coming from.” (Laughter). Then Osborne (ref fast broadband): “So should someone have two kitchens, they will be able to control both fridges from the same mobile phone.” (Overwhelming laughter with stifled snorts from Labour.) But the winner, one of the few tax planning jokes to achieve a popular reaction: George Osborne said he’s reworking the legal basis for a Deed of Variation (Tory delight) and in the autumn will be consulting the leader of the opposition “if the party opposite hasn’t executed its own deed of variation by then.” (Fatter Tories straining at the seams.) “We liked that,” A Labour MP said. “It showed just how nasty Osborne is.”

The Long Term Economic Plan was the most daring plan when it was published – and its most devout supporters thought it was going to need some inspired statisticians to make it look as though it was working.

But it’s a rout.

All those things the PM says about jobs, growth, the deficit – you need to overwork your confirmation bias to argue against them.

So, Ed Miliband re-ran his greatest hits – and just kept running into the prime minister’s clunking fist. Why hadn’t he kept his promises on A&E waiting times? Why did he close hospitals? Why are cancer targets being missed? We know that some of these targets are being missed but many by tiny amounts. We know too that Labour closed hospitals. And that the Tories have spent more than Labour on health. The picture of medieval misery that Miliband sees in his Rorschach test is hard to share. And when he says, “Why on earth should anyone believe him?” some of us think: “Wasn’t that Iain Duncan Smith’s line?”

“A budget that no one will believe,” he said later.

Maybe parts of it will be contested, maybe there’ll be a pasty in it. But the previous leadership line was that state spending was going back to level of the Great Depression. Osborne said that state spending would stabilize at the level of 2001. That was when Gordon Brown was the greatest chancellor in the world (an active lefty sticking to Tory spending limits).

So, the impossible has been achieved. It used to be about jam tomorrow. Now, heady with its success, the Tory leadership is suggesting no jam at all. The budget plan says: “If you refrain from having this doughnut now, you can have a very large tuna salad in five years time.” No wonder Labour is less downcast than it ought to be.

PMQs SKETCH: Cameron’s Only Important Failure

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All these repeats on television. Miliband did the TV debates again. And again. All his questions. So much happening in the world and he wants to talk about a TV programme, the PM said. “He’s weak and despicable and wants to crawl to power on Alex Salmond’s coat tails.”

Despicable and weak.[…] Read the rest

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