Wednesday, 8 February 2017

PMQs Review 8th February 2017 - The Nikileaks Edition

Back in the dying days of the Callaghan administration, back in 1979, there were frantic efforts to corral MPs back from the back of beyond, or Northern Ireland as it is known these days and back from death itself in order to vote to save the Labour Party from an election. MPs were brought to the House in ambulances, in wheelchairs and on trolleys. These days Labour's own MPs pray for an election to save them from their leader and his eccentric management of their party. I say management, but only in the sense that a field of 229 cats can be managed. Even those in senior positions cannot be persuaded to vote for the party line without pulling a sickie. Chauncey was resolutely irresolute. And anyway, one of them was Diane Abbott and she has some peculiar hold over him. You know what they say about exes.

All of this is over our leaving the EU and invoking Article 50. The issue that once divided the Tories and made them fight like rats in a sack trying to get away from herded cats now has them smiling benignly and complacently at one another in much the same way that Chauncey and Diane must once have gazed happily at one another after a pleasant evening drinking Nicaraguan coffee, praising the IRA, hero worshipping Scargill and Castro and discussing the dialectic. This last part always confused both of them which is how they became lovers. Better to have sex than admit that you think that the dialectic is a form of word blindness created by capitalists and Tories to keep down the workers.

Nowadays it is Labour that is bitterly divided over the EU. Now this is complicated so try to keep up. Chauncey is opposed to our membership of the EU but has to pretend otherwise to stop his party from splitting. Diane Abbott is also opposed to our membership of the EU but has to pretend otherwise because she wants to sit next to him on the front bench where the light glints so magnificently off his beard. She therefore has to pretend to have a headache, an excuse that Chauncey has heard often during his life as he tried to talk about the dialectic with some lovelorn impressionable young politics wannabe only to find they suddenly became seriously ill and left in a state of hysteria he could only put down to Tory cuts to the NHS and the imposition of tuition fees. The rest of Labour's front bench is in favour of our continued membership of the EU but has to pretend otherwise because they represent constituencies that voted for Brexit. That is except for those constituencies that did not vote for Brexit. Some MPs are taking principled stands for Brexit. Some are just fearful for their seats. Others are taking principled stands for the retention of their front bench positions. Tories are taking their seats and enjoying the show.

Opposition MPs are at least getting some of their own back by laughing at Tories anger over the grandstanding of John Bercow the Speaker this week with regard to Donald Trump's invitation to these shores. Trump, Bercow let it be known, will not be allowed to speak to the House of Commons or in Westminster Hall during his state visit. In truth nobody had said that he should. This is not, strictly speaking, a matter for the Speaker anyway. He is supposed to be impartial and to work at the behest of Parliament not to act as a virtue signalling halfwit confusing independence with constitutional impropriety. In this he ironically has something in common with President Trump. Bercow, who is probably standing down soon and so is looking demob happy, pretended that he is taking this principled stance because of Trump's policies and politics, in particular his Muslim ban. It has been pointed out however that Bercow never before objected to invitees with altogether worse records than President Trump who has only recently been elected and taken office after all. Oh and of course he was elected. Unlike, to choose an example at random, the President of China who was given an all singing and dancing visit to these shores and to the mother of parliaments, which presumably he felt was a quaint British affectation when clearly he can speak for the people without all of that messy democracy nonsense.

There is muttering about Bercow in the media and on the Tory benches. There is even talk of a vote of no confidence. It will probably amount to nothing. The poisoned and poisonous dwarf has been a reforming speaker and has presided over a strengthening of parliamentary power. It's just a pity he's such a prissy, self aggrandising, profligate, vulgar suck-up. There are many reasons why Theresa May should call an early general election. Ridding us of Speaker Bercow is one of the most convincing.

Chauncey today, hardly surprisingly, decided that it might be best not to talk about Brexit. Perhaps he thought it might give Diane another headache. The subject was Labour's go to, default one for whenever it is in trouble or has run out of ideas - the NHS, specifically why oh why is there not more research into migraines. Actually I made that up.

Instead - and there is an element of guesswork here because Chauncey's first questions were so long and rambling that I started to get a migraine and I have never suffered one before - he was talking about the pressured on A&E departments and talked about some specific examples in Blackburn and in Liverpool where the social care director has resigned.

Now in the hands of a more skilled operator these questions might have hit home because the PM simply stonewalled, talked of the additional money - more than Labour promised - that has been put into the bottomless pit the NHS. The Government cannot really win on the NHS. It is under pressure. It is always under pressure. It was when Labour were in power, when the coalition was in power and now. It is often forgotten that Labour poured money into the NHS. It made no difference. It remained often brilliant, often exasperating and frustrating. Overall, despite the headlines, it does remarkable work given the pressures. Part of the problem is a lack of funding for social care and the continuing problem of the inelegantly named bed blockers clogging up the system.

And this week Chauncey had an aha! moment that Guido has on his site as an exclusive. Yes, someone had leaked to him. Actually it was less a leak and more an errant text sent to the wrong Nick. Texts were, it seems, sent  from the leader of Surrey Council, David Hodge, to someone in the Government, the assumption is that it was to a special adviser, although at the time of writing this is unclear. The accusation was that some kind of deal had been done to stop an embarrassing referendum in that county to raise Council Tax to fund social care.

The PM avoided the question. To be fair she does this magnificently. She is like watching Geoffrey Boycott at the crease, blocking and defending and frustrating the bowlers. And in Chauncey she faces week in week out a bowler who sprays the ball all over the place meaning she can block to her heart's content or even simply stand back and watch his ineffectual technique. This leak in more proficient hands might have been devastating. It might have severely embarrassed the PM. Instead she could easily have sent a text out herself to the leader of Surrey Council asking him around for a cup of tea and a chat.

Mrs May simply used all of the lines that Tory PMs use when talking of the NHS. She spoke of Wales, she spoke of additional spending, she spoke of the economy being strong to fund the NHS. She was certainly on the back foot and it was a coup for Chauncey. In the days ahead this may even amount to a scandal of minor dimensions. The texts talk of numbers being acceptable to stop the referendum. Chauncey asked about it, not very effectively, he got no answer. Maybe the PM simply didn't know. She did tell Chauncey that he was using alternative facts when what Labour needs is an alternative leader.

This will certainly make headlines and it may be a major story. The BBC will probably get terribly excited about it. If it is a major story then it will be no thanks to the Labour leader who had the opportunity of a coup and fluffed it. He had an opportunity to clean bowl the PM and take out her middle stump. Instead she looked mostly at ease if a little ruffled. On the NHS Chauncey does sound more effective, which is fortunate given some of his recent performances.  On this subject, like most that involve spending money on domestic matters, he shouts and gets passionate. But he is rarely incisive and always reads his pre-prepared lines as if his life depends on it. This might have been a triumphant moment for him. If it is, it will be because the papers and the BBC does it for him.

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