It’s an easy mistake to make. You’ve been away on a silent yoga retreat.
You spent the entire weekend watching Sky Sports. You overslept and all the newspapers had been sold by the time you got to Costcutter. These things happen. It’s just a bit unfortunate when you happen to be the leader of the Labour party and you’ve managed to miss the biggest crisis in the Conservative party since the last election.
David Cameron had ostensibly come to the Commons to give a statement on the EU summit on migrants, but his more important mission was to firefight the damage done by the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith. “Europe ... migrant ... Turkey,” he rambled, only partially engaged. When your own career is on the line, the lives of a few hundred thousand Syrian refugees are just collateral damage.
With migrants now off the menu, Dave moved on to the main business. “Can I just say how much I respect and love the former work and pensions secretary,” he said. “Iain was the most brilliant and friendly colleague I’ve ever had and I can’t describe how much I’ll miss squeezing his chubby little cheeks as we josh one another about giving the poor and the disabled a hard time. And when I called him a complete and utter shit, what I really meant was that I was totally delighted Princess Duncan Smith (PDS) had conveniently remembered he had a conscience during the EU referendum campaign after managing to live quite happily without one for the past six years.”
A collective “Ahhh, how sweet!” rumbled through the packed Tory benches who had been briefed that One Nation Conservatism – or One Nation Conservatism Minus One, as PDS was nowhere to be seen – meant trying to pretend everyone was in it together, rather than ripping out each other’s throats over Europe. “Long live Dave! Long live Iain!” The only person who seemed to be fooled by this veneer of unity was Jeremy Corbyn.
“I thank the prime minister for giving me advance notice of half his statement,” Corbyn bellowed, having clearly decided that shouting made him sound more commanding. What Corbyn didn’t say was that because Dave had only let him see half the statement, he was only going to comment on half the statement. Maybe he thought it would be impolite to mention PDS; maybe he had scribbled down some thoughts and couldn’t read his own writing; maybe he is just a terrible performer in the chamber.
The Labour benches waited. And waited. And waited. Surely Corbyn would seize the moment to twist the knife into a government that PDS had described as lacking in compassion? This was the moment for which they had been praying for nearly a year; a self-inflicted Tory death-spiral. The Conservative benches waited. And waited. And waited. This was the moment when they had to sit back and take the hit for their indifference to the disabled and their disunity over Europe.
“Europe... migrants... Turkey... Thank you and good night,” Corbyn bellowed. It took the Labour backbenchers a while to realise their leader had passed up the opportunity to deliver a devastating – possibly terminal – blow to the Dave and George show. After the shock, the disappointment soon set in. A few of the Labour old guard tried to make good the loss with some PDS jibes, but the moment had passed.
Dave looked like a man who couldn’t believe his luck. As did those on the Conservative benches behind him. They had got away with it. They were once more free to squabble among themselves to their heart’s content. One by one, the Eurosceptics rose to moan about the EU and the Turks. Dave couldn’t have been more charming. PDS may be gone, but he is not forgotten. Yet.
For the Tories it was a case of lightning striking twice on the same day, as earlier in the afternoon the shadow chancellor had tabled an urgent question on the government’s U-turn on disability payments and the £4bn hole it left in last week’s budget. This wasn’t a question George Osborne particularly wanted to answer – he had some holiday plans to make – so he sent David Gauke, a junior treasury minister, along to take the hit instead.
“The chancellor is insulting the house by not turning up in person,” McDonnell shouted. Like Corbyn, he now mistakes volume for passion; perhaps they’re both only half way through their media training. McDonnell was so busy being insulted by George’s absence, he completely forgot to go for the jugular. Gauke merely smiled and soaked it up. This wasn’t the first time George had used him as a punchbag and doubtless it wouldn’t be the last.
It took Labour’s Yvette Cooper to get to the heart of the government’s chaotic budget, but Gauke merely shrugged. A £4bn black hole in the budget was well above his pay grade. “The questions are deteriorating in quality,” he observed drily. As were his answers. But being a bit rubbish had been always been Gauke’s main objective. Better that than truthful.
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