30 Mar 2011

PMQs: for better, for worse

News of Ed Miliband’s impending nuptuals briefly lightens the mood at Prime Minister’s Questions, reports Peter McHugh.

News of Ed Miliband's impending marriage lightens the mood at PMQs (Getty)

You have to assume that Wednesday lunchtime in the Commons is when MPs have to clock in to pick up their week’s pay since they are little seen in the chamber the rest of the week. And so it was at noon as they packed the benches, opened their sandwiches and sat back for the entertainment.

Just a week ago they had seen Gentleman George Osborne at his pugilistic best during a much-praised performance of Gotterdammerung (aka the Budget) and were clearly rubbing their hands at what might follow seven days on. But it was obvious almost from the off that drama would be in short supply.

The clues to a successful Prime Ministers Questions is found in the cast and yesterday some of the principals were missing. George had, one assumed , been re-caged following complaints from members of the public and was thus missing from his customary position at Dave’s left hand. But also absent was the Prime Minister’s right hand man and official deputy Nick Clegg whose sickly support for his coalition partner has become a regular part of PMQs.

Left on his own with only William Hague to keep him company -and the Tory jury is still out on him- the Prime Minister started the weekly insults session with a compliment.

Well done to Ed Miliband, he said, who had chosen this morning to announce his up-coming nuptials to his long time partner Justine Thornton.

Ed, who once said political expediency would not determine his marriage plans, beamed with the pleasure of a man who knows the Daily Mail has one less sharp stick to skewer him with, at least for the next 24 hours.

In fact Ed could claim an early wedding present from the PM since it was Miliband who was responsible for the non-appearance of Nick who was instead “in Mexico”, believed to be the country and not a new political phrase for absent friends. Ed had Nick shipped out so he could attend an all party group backing the campaign for the Alternative Vote in the coming referendum.

The Labour leader wants AV and so does the Lib-Dems but both take the view that with Nick now less popular than Norman Tebbit his support is best placed on another continent.

But not all traditions had been abandoned. Defence Secretary Liam Fox sat sullenly on the front bench with the air of a man whose knows the game will be up come the re-shuffle and next to him Ken Clarke. The Justice Secretary came in for some stick last week as he appeared to have pressed the snooze button during George’s shock-and-awe performance. But clearly unperturbed he settled down comfortably again with the look of someone for whom a lunchtime nap was part of the job description.

Dave wished Ed and Justine a long and happy life and Ed took 30 seconds out to say thanks before normal hostilities resumed. The Labour leader has been under the cosh for some months for his performances at PMQs but recently he has developed a tactic which works really well with Dave. Put simply, if Ed stays calm the Dave gets mad for both of them.

Ed scored a quick couple of hits on tuition fees and police numbers and sat back as Dave turned up the volume button in reply.The PM had a good chance to fit Ed up over his appearance at last Saturday’s cuts rally and, egged on by his more recidivist members, had a bit of a go. But you could see that, unlike the good old days, demos are no longer just attended by those who wouldn’t even vote Labour, never mind Tory.

There is often a curious disconnect between the weekly politics of PMQs and the real world with the insults, jeers and cheers perhaps giving some semblance of emotion to what is essentially for most MPs an office job.

Even the war with Colonel Gaddafi in Libya didn’t get much of a mention with the latest confusion over whether or not we can arm the rebels remaining
well, confused. As PMQs ebbed away the sonorous tones of Ming Campbell reminded MPs of the dangers of supplying arms in a civil conflict.

Luckily there is always something or someone to get PMQs back on track and it came in noises off stage by that other bruiser of British politics, Shadow Chancellor ED Balls.

Usually chained up to prevent him mauling his opponents Ed entertains himself with a chorus of continuing insults to accompany the Prime Minister through Question Time.

No stranger to bullying himself, Dave finally lost it and told Ed B he should shut up and listen, a request not often made at PMQs.

He is “the most annoying person in modern politics” opined the PM, thereby rubbishing the only claim to fame of most of the people in the room.

Ed B looked embarrassed, Ed M smiled…..no doubt thinking about the wedding.