Conservative Diary


11 Sep 2013 14:38:52

Nigel Evans thanks his friends and colleagues for their "unstinting support"

By Andrew Gimson
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Nothing during Prime Minister’s questions was as striking as the personal statement made by Nigel Evans (Con, Ribble Valley) immediately afterwards. Mr Evans has just stepped down as deputy speaker while he robustly defends himself against charges which include sexual assault and rape.

One might have expected that he would make a very brief statement, no more than a sentence or two, saying he had stepped down from the deputy speakership in order to concentrate on clearing his name. But Mr Evans instead took the chance to offer his heartfelt thanks to many friends and colleagues, including the Speaker, John Bercow, “for their unstinting support”.

Mr Evans said he found himself in “the land of limbo”, but also quoted Winston Churchill’s words, “when you’re going through hell keep going”, and described this as “sage advice”.

Mr Bercow responded by praising the “exemplary service” given by Mr Evans. In earlier times it seems likely that the greater part of these cordial exchanges, made to a packed House, would have been saved for after the legal proceedings were over. Many observers did not know quite what to make of it all, but perhaps that is always the case during a period of modernisation.

Prime Minister’s questions offered no such innovation. Mr Cameron did, however, employ a wider range of tone about Ed Miliband than has recently been the case. The Prime Minister actually thanked the Labour leader for welcoming the fall in the unemployment figures.

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4 Sep 2013 14:59:04

Both the Prime Minister and Ed Miliband would benefit from a lighter touch at PMQs

By Andrew Gimson
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GimsonAfter detecting incontrovertible signs that the British economy is recovering, Ed Miliband took refuge in Syria, to which he devoted his entire quota of questions. Syria, alas, shows no signs of recovery, and the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition soon found themselves locked in an ignoble contest to see who could express the most sincere revulsion at what is going on there.

Both were trumped by the Father of the House, Sir Peter Tapsell (Con, Louth and Horncastle). There was  flippant “shushing” as he rose to his feet, but he was heard in complete silence as he  voiced what he called “the Armageddon question”: if the Americans “illegally” bomb the Syrians, and the Syrians bring in the Russians to bomb the rebels, what will Nato do?

Cameron with characteristic agility turned the question on its head: if no action is taken against President Assad, and he uses chemical weapons again, “what sort of Armageddon are the Syrian people going to be facing?”

The Prime Minister had earlier announced that he wants to see a “plurelastic” future for Syria. But no soon had we imagined this to be a more flexible and therefore attainable goal for that benighted land than he corrected himself and said “pluralistic”.

Pluralism is a fine thing, but one could not help feeling it is as unlikely to be attained as the democratic ideals with which Tony Blair used to try to kindle our enthusiasm for middle-eastern adventures.

Mr Cameron was not going to allow Mr Miliband to deprive him of the pleasure of alluding to the higher growth forecasts and other pieces of good economic news which have arrived in recent days. A series of obliging Tory backbenchers rose to ask him non-questions about the economy which enabled the Prime Minister to be rude about Labour.

Rudeness has its place in politics, but how one wished that the Prime Minister would show a touch of Churchillian magnanimity towards Mr Miliband: would perhaps invite us to sympathise with the Leader of the Opposition instead of just beating him to a pulp.

At least Mr Miliband did not feel obliged, on this occasion, to try to be rude back. He too might benefit, when next he engages in direct combat with the Prime Minister, from a lighter touch. Mr Miliband may even like to consider whether the time has come to deploy comical weapons. For there is something rather relentless and ungenerous about Mr Cameron’s onslaught.

One of the best questions of the day was put by Margaret Beckett (Lab, Derby South), who wondered: “Why does the Prime Minister believe that his plans to restrict lobbying are opposed by organisations from the Salvation Army, Countryside Alliance, Oxfam, the British Legion and so on, right through to ConservativeHome?”

Mrs Beckett was once deputy leader of the Labour Party, and also for a brief period after John Smith’s death its leader. Perhaps the time has come to bring her back for a second stint as leader, whereupon she could tax Mr Cameron with any criticisms this site may have felt obliged to voice during the preceding week.

But we are sorry to say that Mr Cameron showed no respect either for Mrs Beckett, or for the Salvation Army, Countryside Alliance, Oxfam, the British Legion and ConservativeHome. He instead accused Mrs Beckett of being  part of  “a concerted lobbying campaign being run by the trade unions”.

The Prime Minister is addicted to this union-bashing stuff, but one couldn’t help feeling it didn’t amount to much of an answer.

17 Jul 2013 14:31:02

David Cameron and Ed Miliband are a disgrace to public life

By Andrew Gimson 
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"Is there any point in this, Gimmers?" my neighbour in the press gallery asked half-way through PrimeAndrewGBigBensketchtwo Minister's Questions. "Yes there is, but I'll have to tell you afterwards," I replied, for I like to listen with morbid conscientiousness to what is actually said in the Chamber.

By the end of the session, I had to admit that the point of the exchanges did not appear to be to convey any new information. David Cameron kept saying the Labour Party has been bought by the trade unions, while Ed Miliband and other Labour MPs kept saying the Conservative Party has been bought by the tobacco industry.

How one wished Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband would plead guilty to these charges, or at least place on record their gratitude for the generous donations they have received from the tobacco industry/the trade unions [delete as appropriate], and point out that these are preferable to taxpayer funding.

Instead of which we got a continuation of last week's dialogue of the deaf. Mr Miliband asked in vain whether Mr Cameron "has ever had a conversation with Lynton Crosby about plain cigarette packaging".

The Prime Minister did not, it seems, wish to admit to complete deafness, for he did at one point respond: "The role of Lynton Crosby is to advise on how to defeat a divided and useless Labour Party."

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10 Jul 2013 14:37:40

David Cameron reinvents himself as the most brutal street fighter in the Commons

By Andrew Gimson 
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If the noise at Prime Minister's Questions continues at its present deafening level, David Cameron and AndrewGBigBensketchtwoEd Miliband will soon be unable to hear anything, and will be reduced to communicating with each other in sign language. Or perhaps they have already gone deaf, which is why each man ignores what the other has to say.

Here is a flavour of Mr Cameron's oratory: "They don't want to hear...they're paid to shout....they've [i.e. the trade unions have] bought the policies, they've bought the candidates and they've bought the leader...It's not the party of the people, it's the party of Len McCluskey."

These taunts led Labour MPs to roar louder and longer than I can ever remember them doing, as if determined to blot out their insufferably rude opponent. Mr Miliband, his demeanour that of a child who is being bullied at school but is determined not to give in, tried to get his own back by asking Mr Cameron "how much his party has received in donations from hedge funds" and by describing him as "a man owned by a few millionaires".

The Speaker, John Bercow, complained that we "can't just have a wall of noise", and appealed for "some basic manners", but for much of the time a wall of noise is what we got. The curious thing is that Mr Cameron has excellent manners when he chooses to use them. But perhaps he has decided his good manners have deprived him of "authenticity", that elusive quality seen as so desirable in a modern political leader.

So instead we got Mr Cameron as a sarcastic bully, seizing every chance to goad Mr Miliband, of whom he at one point said: "No wonder he thinks like Buddha - he wants to be reincarnated and come back as a proper leader." I may have the start of this quotation slightly wrong, for the noise made it almost impossible to hear the exact words, but the urge to mock and humiliate Mr Miliband was clear enough.

A week ago these tactics proved highly effective in setting the political agenda and forcing Mr Miliband to react to questions about the trade unions' power over the Labour Party. The relentlessness of the onslaught was what made it so effective. Yet one could not help wishing for a greater use of light and shade. The worst thing for Mr Miliband would be to be laughed at by his own side, because Mr Cameron had made jokes about him, or had sympathised with the difficulty of his task.

But perhaps the Prime Minister has decided he does not wish to overdo it, and precipitate the downfall of Mr Miliband. Labour MPs are to be forced to support their own leader against the taunts of Mr Cameron. The Prime Minister has reinvented himself as the most brutal street fighter in the Commons, It is a disconcerting and coarsening transformation - or perhaps it is just an act, for every so often Mr Cameron gives one of those quick smiles which suggest he knows he is just pretending.





3 Jul 2013 14:24:29

Cameron brings Len McCluskey before a wider public by using him to beat Miliband

By Andrew Gimson
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AndrewGBigBensketchtwoThe Prime Minister gets more brutal by the week. Untroubled by any sense that he might be demeaning his office, he sets out to beat the living daylights out of Ed Miliband. It is not a pretty sight, but I suppose the Prime Minister could say he is just respecting our adversarial tradition of politics.

Mr Cameron enjoys being adversarial. Every so often he cannot refrain from giving a quick flash of amusement at some particularly cruel remark he has made. Today these were almost entirely devoted to suggesting that Mr Miliband is the helpless prisoner of Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite trade union.

Mr McCluskey got dragged into everything. Here, too, one might say Mr Cameron is demonstrating his respect for tradition. The Tories used to love suggesting that Labour was in the pocket of the trade unions, and here was Mr Cameron perpetuating this accusation thirty years after Margaret Thatcher broke the unions' power.

Miliband managed to defend himself for a minute or two by asking about the troubles in Egypt. In justice to Mr Cameron, it should be recorded that he at least did not blame what is happening in Cairo on Mr McCluskey. The Prime Minister told us the Foreign Office was advising "against all but essential travel" to Egypt "except for the Red Sea resorts", and for a moment we feared he was going to make some tasteless joke about how at home Mr McCluskey would feel in a resort of that political complexion.

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19 Jun 2013 14:40:30

PMQs: David Cameron and Lynton Crosby set out to destroy the Labour Party

By Andrew Gimson
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AndrewGBigBensketch Lynton Crosby has never lobbied David Cameron on anything to do with cigarettes or alcohol. The Prime Minister insisted, when challenged on this point, that he is only interested in learning one thing from Mr Crosby: "How we destroy the credibility of the Labour Party." Mr Cameron added that this was a subject in which Mr Crosby has "considerable expertise", but is something Labour is even better at doing for itself.

One might add that this is also a subject in which Mr Cameron has considerable expertise. On leaving Oxford, he went straight into the Conservative Research Department, where he mastered the technique of making a close study of Labour policy in order to demonstrate, with the help of quotation, that it is riven by fatal contradictions.

So what we get nowadays at Prime Minister's questions is a perpetual assault by Mr Cameron on the Labour Party, of a kind which a gifted desk officer in the Conservative Research Department of the late 1980s might make. It is a professional performance, but also a rather mean-spirited and constricted one. In vain the Speaker, John Bercow, told the Prime Minister to concentrate on government policy. Mr Cameron was more interested in the Opposition's policies. At frequent intervals he would give yet another example of something Labour had got wrong before declaring "What a complete shambles", "Another shambles", "Just another display of extraordinary weakness" and so on and so forth.

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12 Jun 2013 14:27:09

Commons sketch: Cameron wages an unEdifying war of attrition against Balls

By Andrew Gimson
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AndrewGBigBensketch David Cameron got the better of this bar-room brawl, but despite the involvement of the two Eds, the contest was not an Edifying one. It became all too clear from these scrappy exchanges that the Prime Minister is determined to seize every chance to kick Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor: to unEdify him, as it were. Ed Miliband performed respectably enough as Leader of the Opposition, but was reduced for much of the time to the role of a spectator.

Would Labour reverse the Government's cuts in the spare-room subsidy, or  bedroom tax, or whatever one wishes to call it? The question was put to Mr Balls, not Mr Miliband. Mr Balls's denial that the last Labour Government was profligate was treated as one of the most significant statements of the last ten years, and one that "is going to be hung around his neck forever".

One fears it will certainly be hung round his neck until the next general election in 2015. When I use the word "fears", I mean that to those of us who follow politics with some attention, this style of debate might start to become  slightly wearisome. But Lynton Crosby has never been a trainer who worries about such aesthetic questions as whether his man's mode of fighting is elegant. Mr Crosby clearly wants Mr Cameron to remind people at every turn that Labour cannot be trusted with the economy: a message to be conveyed by kicking, scratching and pummelling Mr Balls for week after week after week.

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5 Jun 2013 14:00:01

PMQs was like a Punch and Judy show in which no blow connected with its target

By Andrew Gimson
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Snip20130508_1David Cameron got too shouty too soon. Just as one may become enraged by the mere sight of an insect which one knows is going to try to bite one, so Mr Cameron at once got infuriated with Ed Miliband. The Prime Minister was determined to squash the Leader of the Opposition, and for this purpose had come equipped with a rhetorical bludgeon. The first question, by Rushanara Ali (Lab, Bethnal Green and Bow), concerned the deficit. Mr Cameron raised his bludgeon high in the air and brought in crashing down on Mr Miliband's head. He denounced him for Labour's newly revealed decision not to reverse the Government's cut in child benefit for higher earners: Labour was now in "total and utter confusion and perhaps he can explain himself when he gets to his feet".

The second question, from Douglas Carswell (Con, Clacton), was about the recall of MPs: Mr Carswell does not want "politicians sitting in judgement on politicians". Mr Cameron disagreed as politely as possible with Mr Carswell and took a second swipe at Mr Miliband: "But on the subject of recall I hope the Leader of the Opposition will recall his attack on child benefit when he gets to his feet."

The attack was too clearly diversionary to act as a genuine diversion. As an attempt to pre-empt whatever Mr Miliband might wish to ask the Prime Minister about, it was too crude. The Tory benches looked glum. Their man had shown a commendable desire to beat the enemy's brains out, but had not actually managed to do so.

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15 May 2013 14:14:26

Nick Clegg enjoys standing in for David Cameron and denouncing Labour

By Andrew Gimson
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Is the Nick Clegg who promised a referendum at the time of the Lisbon Treaty "an impostor or Snip20130508_1 just a hypocrite"? This was the contemptuous choice offered by Edward Leigh (Con, Gainsborough) as Clegg stood in for David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions.

Leigh was one of several Tory MPs who enjoyed referring to the leaflet in which Clegg pledged himself to a referendum. Vince Cable, believed by some to be intending to supplant Clegg as Lib Dem leader before the next election, grinned as the awkward question was put. Danny Alexander, a loyal Cleggite, looked hot with embarrassment.

But Clegg himself did not look in the slightest bit embarrassed. He confirmed that the man in the leaflet was himself, and declared that the Lib Dem position remains that "we should have a referendum on Europe when the rules change".

Whether or not that is a true summary of the Lib Dem position, Clegg managed to sound as if he thought it was true. He looked like a man who was greatly
enjoying the chance to clear his name.

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24 Apr 2013 13:57:05

Miliband's neighbours looked unhappy. And Cameron's looked no happier.

By Andrew Gimson
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Screen shot 2013-04-24 at 13.48.19Nothing beats the experience of watching Prime Minister's Questions on television. It enables one to see in close-up the faces of the front-benchers sitting next to David Cameron and Ed Miliband, and to tell from their expressions what they think of their leaders' performances. 

Harriet Harman resembles an aunt who has come along to watch her nephew take the lead part in the school play, and is saddened to see just how inadequate the lad is turning out to be. As a loyal member of the Labour family, she composes her features into a matronly mask of only faint disapproval, but no one is deceived into imagining she feels the slightest bit enthusiastic about young Miliband.

Nor does Ed Balls betray any trace of admiration for his leader's performance. Balls believes he could play the part with far greater brio and intellectual audacity himself.

But one cannot pretend that Cameron's neighbours look any happier. Nick Clegg has the air of a man who has had the stuffing knocked out of him, while George Osborne appears to be in another world, brooding on sorrows which have no connection with the subject at hand.

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