Miliband’s cunning plan: still no answer

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It is now three weeks since Ed Miliband launched his unbelievably cunning strategy for prime minister’s questions of asking the prime minister questions.  Mr Cameron, who took up to eight months to work out that his health secretary’s health reforms were political suicide on stilts, cannot claim a reputation for being quick on the uptake. There was, from today’s evidence, no sign that he has yet spotted the Miliband secret weapon, still less worked out how to counter it.

Mr Cameron has available to him the conventional three options for dealing with challenges put to him across the despatch box: he can answer the question; or ignore it; or answer another question altogether. The prime minister is in fact quite good at answering the question when the inclination takes him. When the Conservative backbencher Graham Evans today inquired whether the PM felt that the men of Bomber Command killed in the war deserve to be remembered, he had no hesitation in thinking that to be the case.  Labour members quite often seek to test Mr Cameron’s opinion on whether he is an insufferable Etonian bully-boy, presiding over a Cabinet of monsters steeped in the blood of pensioners, and he rarely feels the need to smudge his reply. Yet when Mr Miliband rises to speak, the prime minister’s certainties desert him.

Both dodging tactics were on display today. There was a period in the middle of the Miliband innings when the prime minister started to answer not the leader of the opposition’s immediate question, but the one he had put to him on the previous go. For a while it looked as if PMQs was going to go the way of the famous Two Ronnies’  Mastermind sketch. If Mr Miliband had had the wit to ask Mr Cameron if he knew what Burke’s peerage was, the PM would surely have replied a study of old fossils.

Perhaps mindful of where this was heading, the prime minister switched tactic. He stopped answering the question altogether. On and on droned Mr Miliband with ever more detailed interrogations about the impact of the NHS reforms. Did the prime minister know how many new statutory bodies would be created by the changes? Well, of course, he didn’t. Nobody does. Mr Miliband supplied an answer – he likes to do that – 521 as it happens, but this has no more status than a child’s church fete estimate of he number of sweets in a jar.  By the time anyone in the Department of Health has finished counting, half of them will have been abolished and twice as many again re-created under different initials. Such is the endearing and enduring nature of British health policy.

The only thing Mr Cameron has to count is the number of the opposition leader’s questions, so that by the time he has had his six, the PM is then free to launch into his pre-prepared rant.  This took the form of a litany of all the things that Mr Miliband hadn’t asked him about – strikes, the economy, Greece and so forth – each of which, according to the prime minister, revealed either political vulnerability or shocking lack of judgement, or both.  It is not the first time Cameron has tried this out and each time I cannot help but imagine him as a suspect under police interrogation. “Ha”, he says, “I notice that all the detective chief inspector wants to know is where I’ve hidden the body; he simply wouldn’t dare to tackle me on my views of 17th century chamber music”.

On the subject of the health reforms themselves, the prime minister was pleased to observe that they had gained the support of Tony Blair and of the former Labour health minister Lord Darzi. However, he mispronounced the latter’s name so it came out as Lord Darz-eye, as if Mr Cameron might have been temporarily under the impression that GP commissioning had been well-reviewed by the prime minister of Afghanistan. Later, a sycophantic Tory MP from Wales, Guto Bebb, observed that Nye Bevan would be spinning in his grave at what Labour was doing to the NHS in the Prinicipality. Regular observers of health politics will know that Nye Bevan has been spinning in his grave for one reason or another ever since he died 51 years ago, and possibly even before that. Another questioner wanted to know about renewable energy to which the answer surely is to harness the power emanating from the founder of the NHS expressing his posthumous displeasure at that organisation’s subsequent and inexorable decline.

Two nations: divided by the CRB

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Overflowing with respect for even the most cantankerous opponent, and oozing reasonableness from every pore, Michael Gove arrived at the despatch box yesterday to answer an emergency question on Thursday’s teacher’s strike. When he speaks, Mr Gove does so in organised, manicured and precisely stressed phrases, as if talking to very small children (which of course he largely is). He sounded like a fashionable actor trying to do responsible for the story-time slot on CBeebies.

It thus came as some surprise to discover, as the questioning continued, that Mr Gove had himself once been, in the words of Labour member Bill Sefton, a “staunch trade unionist” and had gone on strike. A picture has surfaced of young Gove on the picket line, the future Secretary of State being instantly recognisable as the only one whose placard contains semi-colons.  “I lost my job as a result of taking industrial action”, Mr Gove solemnly informed the House, using this observation to draw the deeper moral that going on strike never solves anything. If there was a shallower moral for teachers to draw that going on strike gets you fired,  Mr Gove was too refined to say so. One would no more expect such Tebbitry from him than you would dockyard language from the Queen at an investiture.

At the time of his ill-fated action, Mr Gove was a journalist on the Aberdeen Press and Journal, and I am sure that publication was immeasurably the poorer for appearing that week without its practical woodworking column.  There is a passage in Stephen Fry’s novel Hippopotamus when its hero, a poet, laments the fact that if all the poets in the country went on strike (as opposed to all the sewage workers) no one would care, or even notice. The same could perhaps be said of all the journalists in Aberdeen. These days, in any case, a little army of bloggers and tweeters would rush in to fill the anxious void.

The loss of a great many teachers on Thursday, by contrast, might be held to be damaging to the national fibre which is why Mr Gove’s statement, in between regretting the action in absolute – one might almost say ablative absolute – terms, laid great emphasis on what could be done by schools to stay open despite everything.  Mr Gove’s department, we learned, is compiling figures on how this effort is going. Given that department’s record for organising information, this is not necessarily a source of reassurance. Doubtless we shall soon be told that of the country’s seventeen and a half million schools and academies, nearly twenty-five million expect to be able to muddle through.

Muddling through will involve volunteer effort from parents, something that the Secretary of State has been anxious to try to whip up. In this he received enthusiastic support from Tracey Crouch, a Tory from Kent, who demanded to know what she “and other colleagues who have a CRB certificate” could do to help. Ms Crouch, who is a qualified football coach, could doubtless be found some PE to take somewhere. Listening to her offer, however, one is tempted to conclude that truly we are two nations after all, divided between those authorised by the police to remain in the vicinity of children and those for whom the jury is out. Ms Crouch’s fellow MPs who do not have the requisite documentation from the fuzz will I expect be allowed to hang around the school gates, fondling their bags of sweets.

It is tempting to regard the great schools relief effort as an example of the Big Society where the oppressive instruments of the state – in this instance the Association of Teachers and Lecturers – are overthrown by the brute power of cheery amateurism. Personally, I think the parallels are more historic. Think back to the general strike in 1926, when men in fedoras got to drive  buses and trains for a day or so before the TUC, broken by the unstoppable practicality of the middle-classes, called the whole thing off. That this was also the fulfillment of a boyhood dream for many was a happy by-product of an otherwise dark week in our history.

Of course, not many boys say that when they grow up they want to be a classroom assistant, so the analogy might break down at this point. The Speaker though both dresses for the part of a minor prep school master and, say his enemies, behaves increasingly as if that is what he is.  Mr Bercow is also no fan of Mr Gove, yet on this occasion even he could find nothing to fault in the Secretary of State’s immaculately polite presentation.

There was, however, one brief moment of danger. Discussing what he had or had not said to the teaching unions while still in opposition, Mr Gove appeared to come close to accusing Andy Burnham, his opposite number, of misleading the House – an offence high upon the roster of parliamentary naughtiness.  Mr Bercow must have blinked, or nodded off, for he allowed the Secretary of State time to recover. Mr Gove re-stated the point in a manner that implied he would be less astonished to find Simon Cowell splashing about in his morning sugar puffs than Mr Burnham misleading the House. We all knew what he meant anyway, but even Bercow was quelled by his charm.

MPs debate Lords reform

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Listening to MPs debating Nick Clegg’s proposals for a mainly-elected House of Lords, one learned that there are two types of parliamentarian.

One is the “expert” – though that arid and easily-derided term hardly does justice to these paragons of wisdom and virtue. These are the men and women of the House of Lords, whose judgements are dusted with infallibility, whose opinions make us rich beyond the dreams of avarice, whose detached and gracious consideration of the Local Government (Number 2) Regulations are sufficient to make the cynic drop to his knees in the street and cry “hallelujah”.

And then there are the elected members of the House of Commons. Quite what it is about the process of being elected that causes these vast grain-silos of erudition to shrivel like a grape upon the Aga hotplate was never adequately explained in the debate, though the New Forest’s Julian Lewis for one accepted the inevitability of the process. There comes a time in everyone’s 30s or 40s, he observed, when it was necessary to choose between securing the “pinnacle of expertise” and seeking the people’s mandate. Thus Dr Lewis, a modest man burdened by the realisation that he had chosen the lower path, humbly submitted that the Lords was the intellectual and moral superior to the Commons, a point he illustrated with three historical studies where it had had the intellect and moral purpose to agree with Dr Lewis.

These examples were all from before 1997, the point at which Dr Lewis had kissed enlightenment goodbye and become an MP. In the subsequent 14 years, he explained, Dr Lewis had, with one tiny exception, had no influence over legislation whatsoever. The electors of the New Forest it seems have received a poor return from their member’s intellectual defenestration.

This was, in many ways, a good old-fashioned debate where the conservative cause came directly up against the forces of progressivism and, in my book, the conservatives won. This was not just because the progressives are led on this issue by Nick Clegg who, in the current political climate, is the one man whose advocacy of motherhood and apple pie would doom those causes to defeat. One sensed the weakness of their case when Susan Elan Jones, the earnest Labour member for Clwyd South, without preamble or pleasantry, pitched straight into quoting from the universal declaration of human rights. I dare say that there is much to be said for the universal declaration of human rights, but it seems like a sledgehammer better wielded against, say, the imprisonment of political activists in China or ethnic cleansing in the Horn of Africa. Just how oppressed are the people of Clwyd South by the limited voting rights granted in our parliamentary system to Lord Winston and the Bishop of Bath and Wells?

Ms Elan Jones did though have China on her mind, observing that the Lords is the second-largest parliamentary chamber in the world after the National People’s Congress. Since no one objected that it would be a damn fine thing if we could beat China on something for a change, one must assume that Ms Elan Jones carried the House with her on this complaint that the “other place” (as they like to call it down the green end) was over-endowed with members. In fairness, however, it should be pointed out that the House of Lords works a lot harder than the National People’s Congress and enjoys better upholstery. Meanwhile the prime minister was occupied round the corner hosting Premier Wen Jiabao and studiously not mentioning China’s human rights record in the interests of British trade. It must have been a comfort to him that at least somebody in the neighbourhood was addressing that other great blot on the planet’s democratic credentials, the House of Lords.

Busy with the Great Wen, Mr Cameron was not present at all during the debate, though his deputy was, if only sporadically. A pity because he missed some good, if slightly repetitive, speeches on both sides of the aisle. He also missed a typically OTT performance from Ealing North’s stand-up member Stephen Pound who had much fun with a previous contribution from George Eustice, a Cornish Tory, who had praised the Lords for providing a forum for “debate for the older generation and people who have experience”. This, naturally, in Mr Pound’s hands became the “Saga Chamber” and (for less obvious reasons) like “the great zoos of Addis Ababa” where “giant pachyderms sink to their knees and surrender to starvation”. Pound pounded on in this vein for a couple of minutes before  the air ran out of even his great balloon of wit, and he collapsed into the somewhat feeble conclusion that the Lords should be left as it is because it looks nice and does little harm.

The same might be said of Mark Durkan’s suggestion that there should be a “pastoral bench” in the Lords. This conjured up the brief  and pleasant image of a happy corner of morris dancers who would tinkle their bells in assent to the motion and beat the crossbenchers with their staves when the ale ran out. Alas, Mr Durkan was using the term in its theological sense, calling for the bench of bishops to be replaced with a multi-faith workshop where bishops would rub up against rabbis and imams and, no doubt, druids, Zoroastrians, Hare Krishnas and a smattering of folk from the South Sea islands where the Duke of Edinburgh is worshipped as a god.

And atheists too I hope. What better reform of the Lords can there be than to elevate Richard Dawkins to its membership and sit him in a special place where he can experience hell on earth before he gets the opportunity of finding out about the real thing?