One in the Eye for Dave

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The first prime minister’s questions for six weeks and the House listened, in inevitable gloom, as Mr Cameron brought it up to date with the British death toll in Afghanistan.  Five soldiers and the aid worker Linda Norgrove whose death in an ill-fated rescue mission the prime minister later confirmed was being looked into by a joint US-UK inquiry.

No one doubts, of course, that the prime minister is right to use up the first few minutes of PMQs on this grim task, though he might be advised against puncturing the solemnity of the moment by tacking onto the end of his statement anything else he just thinks he wants to say. On this occasion it was a hi there message to the Chilean miners emerging from their two months underground.  Gripping though the Chilean rescue may be as a daytime TV spectacle – more interesting than the Commonwealth Games at any rate – this hardly seems to count alongside the deaths of our soldiers in combat as a reason for holding up the House.

At least Junior Miliband, headlining for the first time in the opposition spot, did not feel obliged to repeat the prime minister’s warm words for South America, though he did choose to read out all the dead soldiers’ names – as Mr Cameron had just done – which, I am afraid to say, made it sound rather as if he was milking his moment of statesmanship for everything it was worth. He had been piped into position by what he chose to characterise as “kind” words from the prime minister. Since these had come in response to a mischevious question from Tory backbencher David Evenett, who wanted to congratulate the Labour members opposite on their choice of leader – the point of course being that they had chosen a different Miliband – Junior was being either excessively courteous or plain naieve.

Thereafter, things got better for Mr Miliband. Noticing that the prime minister’s message to Chile must have been something of a solidarity statement – Mr Cameron being able to recognise fellow human beings when they are in a hole – he wanted to know where the Tory leader stood on the issue of the fairness of his child benefit proposals. Mr Miliband had an unanswerable point – the fairness, or more likely otherwise, of two earners just below the top rate keeping their child benefit while a one top-rate taxpayer household would lose theirs – and so the prime minister therefore chose not to answer it.

For this purpose he adopted the ancient, but infuriatingly impermeable, technique of making instead a slightly-related, but in fact entirely besides the point, response.  To understand the venerable heritage of this method, imagine the leader of the opposition in 1066 berating King Harold for losing the Battle of Hastings.  What the honourable gentleman completely fails to understand, replies the King, is that it is only three weeks since I wiped the floor with the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. The point about Stamford Bridge is, of course, true, but not very convincing in the circumstances, especially if those circumstances include having an arrow in your eye.

Down a hole and with an arrow in his optic, the prime minister did well enough in the end to battle to a draw, but it will be Mr Miliband who gets the plaudits for a confident performance on his first outing. He even managed an “I ask the questions and he answers them” gambit, which older lags in his shoes have usually waited at least a year before trotting out. Precocious or what.

Later on another Tory backbencher, Margot James, reminded the prime minister, perhaps not entirely in line with the whips’ instructions, that the health campaigner, Claire Rayner, who died on Monday, had promised to come back and haunt him if he buggers up the NHS. A Labour MP, reckoned to be Clwyd’s Chris Ruane, was heard to howl hysterically at this point, a sound not heard within the Parliamentary Labour Party since Junior got elected. But back to the late Ms Rayner who, a decade ago, left the Labour Party for the Liberal Democrats because it was Tony Blair back then tinkering with her “beloved” health service. With the Libs now in coalition she obviously felt the only political transition left open to her was to the afterlife.  “I was brought up listening to Dr Rayner on Capital Radio” replied Mr Cameron, providing a rare insight into the Eton curriculum. But Ms Rayner was a nurse, not a doctor, so whatever listening Dave was doing, it wasn’t very close.


In the Freedom Zone

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The libertarian and the authoritarian tendencies have always existed uncomfortably side-by-side in the Conservative Party and continue to do so in Birmingham, where the party  assembled for its annual conference.  Inside the citadel of ugliness, created by offsetting the permanent hideousness of the ICC with a temporary garnish of assorted security barriers, the bulk of the party enjoyed itself. ID cards are inspected, stewards direct the flow and the congregation dutifully applauds in all the right places as ministers download their computer-generated witticisms.  Yet just 50 yards beyond this controlled environment there exists the Freedom Zone, a conference without a conference and this is where the libertarians gather to frolic and play.

Monday lunchtime, and half a lecture theatre full of freedom fighters have come together for a loosely-structured fringe meeting on the topic of, well, freedom, compered by Claire Fox, head of the Orwellianly-titled Institute of Ideas.  Ms Fox, who wears a collar and tie, presumably to signal her freedom from the stereotypical norms of female attire, introduces the panel, the best-known of whom is Paul Staines who is even better-known as the blogger Guido Fawkes.  Most of those here, one suspects, have come here to hear Guido. In the event, however, Mr Staines spends most of the meeting gently humming on the sidelines, like a nuclear reactor, and says little.  It is a rare, and rather terrifying, gathering that has the capacity to make Paul Staines the still clam force of reason.

Most of the running was made by Alex Deane, who was once chief of staff to David Cameron and who now runs a website called Big Brother Watch, dedicated, in its own words, to “fighting intrusions on the privacy and the liberties of the British people”.  Mr Deane’s style is nothing if not pugnacious. Asked, as were all the panellists, to suggest laws that the coalition government might usefully repeal in the name of freedom, Mr Deane embarked upon a list of hated legislation that showed no signs of abating after about ten minutes of closely-argued demolition.  Ms Fox earned her chairman’s fee by eventually getting him to shut up, though the brief shudder that rippled along the speaker’s table suggested that it might have been a sharp kick behind the cloth that had done the trick.

No less fanatical in denouncing his fellow panellists for back-sliding, Mr Deane left the meeting in no doubt that he is indeed the Madame Mao of the libertarian movement. The man from Forest – the organisation that would like us to continue to puff our lungs into cancerous oblivion in the name of freedom – all but needed a police escort to leave the room alive, by the time Mr Deane had finished with him.

A  small modicum of balance was secured by the presence of Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley and a member of the Freedom Association, though clearly a writhing leftie in the eyes of Alex Deane. Mr Davies is in favour of CCTV and boldly argued his case in front of an audience growing visibly more agitated by the minute. John Stuart Mill, the author of On Liberty, conceded that freedom of speech should not extend to crying out “death to the stinking corn-merchants” to an angry mob positioned outside a corn-merchant’s house. Mr Davies‘ position on CCTV seemed somewhat comparable. He used his freedoms bravely.

Jolly Justice Secretary Spreads the Gloom

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While Ed Miliband struggles to define the new generation, it is the old generation that is causing David Cameron the problems this morning.  Ken Clarke, living testament to the folly of the Government letting people work on into their 70s, has told the Observer that he thinks it possible that Britain’s economy will slip back into recession. Mr Clarke, whose attempts down the ages to claim the leadership of the Conservative Party show him to be less acquainted with the double than the triple dip,  is not, you understand, directly blaming George Osborne for this state of affairs;  yet as an endorsement of the Government’s economic policy, it is less ringing than a clay bell with a broken clapper.  Mr Cameron, understandably anxious that his party should be associated with something more than scorched earth economics, will not be pleased.

Which no doubt will bother the jolly Justice Secretary not one bit. Mr Clarke is a small island of self-confidence floating in a vast ocean of bonhomie and, unlike many other old-age pensioners, does not actually need the work. Besides, he is about to venture into one of the most hostile environments that he knows, the Conservative Party Conference, and his dander will be up.