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.
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. Ouch. Yes, that made Cameron’s supporters wince. An upstanding Tory, an Etonian, a natural leader with his easy grace and upper class charms – he can’t say those things and expect people to think Miliband is despicable as a result.
What people think is, “Why is the prime minister so exercised over someone like Ed Miliband?”
When Cameron displays the good manners of his class it reaches into parts of the electorate that politics don’t reach.
It’s a mark of Cameron’s only important failure that Miliband – a man who shouldn’t have been allowed out in public – has managed to drag him down to his level. Miliband calls him feeble and useless, Cameron calls him weak and despicable.
Miliband responds with a version of, “I know you are but what am I?”
The prime minister didn’t have to descend so far.
It’s always exciting to discover a new low in PMQs. We’ve been bumping along the bottom since the New Year and here we had stomach-fluttering slump.
The prodigious noise in the chamber – so chamber reporters said – was mainly that of conversations between people trying to make themselves heard above other conversationalists. Half an opposition bench vacated itself before the end of play. The mood in the House was ‘Who are we and what are we doing here?’ (Answers in the comments.)
The Speaker, still smarting from his humiliation on Cockerell’s documentary, wore his fixed smile, barely tried to control the chamber. The prime minister kept reaching up to yank his tail. He mocked the Speaker’s verbosity. He caricatured his catchphrases. He pleased his Bercow-baiting back bench.
And while this is all very well, it must be said that the Speaker has won everything he needs to win. He is now unbeatable, unmoveable, invulnerable. The Tories have misread the threat, and funked the chance to bring to the floor of the House just before the half-term recess the only Motion that offers a chance of ousting him (to make the Speaker’s re-election a secret vote). He saw them funk it, and feels himself secure.
In a tight parliament, with irreconcilable parties, coalition government may not be a possibility. The powers of the Speaker will multiply. His collusion with Labour – already an established fact – will work against the Tory minority government. He will find a way – because he has a genius for these things – to by-pass the Queen and bring a Labour government to the Treasury benches.
And just about the time he should be resigning, he will preside over the Westminster exodus, to a continental-style, non-confrontational, horseshoe-shaped venue with individual desks and microphones – with his hand on the volume.
Remember, above all else, John Bercow is an artist of power, a grand master in the renaissance workshop tradition. And the Tories are just too cavalier, too amateur to deal with him. Tail-tweaking is an inadequate response.
We can only watch.
Next new depth: Ed Miliband’s achievement must not go unrecorded. A third world war is brewing, the European Union may be about to implode, religious maniacs have established a medieval tyranny just north of the Plain of Megiddo, and the Labour party itself faces an existential threat from the Scots Nats.
So, Miliband spent half his quota of questions on challenging Cameron to a television debate.
There is a rumour that Cameron was going to challenge Miliband to a television debate and has thus been outflanked. If this is the size of it, the opposition leader showed himself to be one pitiful pygmy.
Cameron asked which MPs were going to use the photo-op shots of Miliband on their leaflets. Most of the people who put their hands up were Scots Nats. There will be slaughter over the border and lose or win, Miliband will go down as the leader who destroyed his party.
After Peter Tapsell’s intervention in PMQs, there was no obvious need to proceed with the Opposition Day move to ban MPs having paid directorships or consultancies.
This is the Labour leadership’s move to get some votes out of the Rifkind/Straw sting.
Tapsell rose from his seat in all his opulence and warned that such a move would limit membership of the Commons to “inheritors of large fortunes, or those with rich spouses, or obsessive crackpots, or those” (to general delight) who are unemployable anywhere else.”
Hard to choose one of those categories to put Miliband into. He had a mansion tax inheritance, has a six-figure wife, is a political obsessive, a policy crackpot, and is employable by no one other than the Labour party. Harvard, maybe? He assumes so. Time will tell.
Cameron pointed out that the Miliband Motion allowed MPs still to have second jobs. And that the cap on earnings had been mooted then withdrawn. And that Labour MPs could still be wholly sponsored by a trade union under this proposal but the director of a family business would be banned.
Miliband offered across the despatch box to put a manuscript amendment to ban trade union sponsorship. Would the prime minister then support the Motion?
He was told not to be silly.
What a caricature of incompetent miserablism Miliband has become. Prohibit it or punish it, his first instincts.
He makes William Hague’s leadership of the opposition look Churchillian.
If a serious opposition leader really wanted to “restore the reputation of the House” as Miliband twice said he wanted to do – he would have said none of the things Miliband said. Nor would he have found himself chopping his position about as his colleagues made representations. And he certainly wouldn’t be wonking about offering manuscript amendments from the despatch box.
His friends and supporters both testify to his intelligence and decency. But the facts speak for themselves. He got a second class degree and he talks Manichean drivel about politics.
For instance: “The Tory party bought and sold by the hedge funds!”
What sad and sorry rubbish.
If it were true we’d have a single, low, flat tax on income, time-limited welfare, and full deductibility for domestic staff.
It was of the few times you might wish the noodle was telling the truth.
The Sketch Team spent the morning drowning kittens to train for PMQs. Piteous sights and sounds we beheld, quite wither-wringing. On a positive note, we got through the carnage of Ed Miliband’s performance without a tear.
How the Tory dogs leapt on him. Tore at him. The noise (so chamber reporters said) has never been noisier. Cameron was on his best form for years and made a very decent joke.
“Bill someone,” Ed Balls had said last night on Newsnight, when asked to name a Labour business backer. “Bill,” Balls said. Bill who? It turned out to be Bill the chairman of Labour’s Small Business Task Force. Balls had just been having dinner with him, not an hour before the interview. Small business significance in the Labour cosmology can be determined by the fact that his name had escaped the shadow chancellor. Bill, Bill someone.
Cameron was laughing at him (and to be fair Balls was laughing back), “Bill someone! It’s not a person, it’s Labour’s policy!”
Several Labour MPs committed hari-kiri on the spot.
Inside the Commons, the four-part documentary which began screening last night, was first floated by SACPE (the Speaker’s Absurd Committee on Public Engagement). The Speaker might have assumed that he, as the patron of the project, would get the lion’s share of the glory and emerge as the public face of British democracy.
However, the programme was being put together last summer, at the same time Speaker Watch was covering – or uncovering – the row surrounding the appointment of the new Clerk and John Bercow’s descent into megalomania.
This may have informed the programme’s editing.
The first episode promotes Bercow’s critics, sceptics and opponents. Michael Fabricant, a persistent sceptic was prominent. Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker’s deputy and widely tipped successor was showcased positively. But most of all, Robert Rogers, loathed, sworn-at by the Speaker, driven from office by him, was the constitutional centre piece of the first episode.
Kate Emms, the sometime secretary to the Speaker, and (rumour has it) also hounded from her job by Bercow’s relentless persecution, is featured significantly in episode 2.
Bercow himself had an establishing shot last night. Leaning back on his throne, brooding, exuding a sense of latent and, for those who follow him, malevolent power, like a medieval prince.
If Cockerell did get the hang of Bercow during the filming future episodes could be the most remarkable piece of television.