PMQs verdict: Osborne would be a disastrous Tory leader

Tories must feel quite apprehensive when they see George Osborne stand in for David Cameron during PMQs. He really does look like their Ed Miliband - but less likeable.

There's something very uncomfortable about the way he holds himself, a sort of shuffly nervous resentment which typifies all his movements. He can't seem to hide his internal thoughts from showing on his face, so it's often melted into a scowl when addressing a political opponent. Actually his face is even weirder than that. It seems to scowl at the mouth but have this childlike stargazing innocence in the eyes. It's disquieting.

His hands are constantly moving, wrangling about as if they're independent of his body - bouncing, pointing, hovering, slopping over the despatch box. It's easy to write this stuff off as superficial, but it matters. It just does. Cameron's body language, and especially his hand movements, indicate confidence and decisiveness. Tony Blair used to have this constant motion where he indicated the issues in front of him and then divided them up along the desk, giving the impression that he was on top of it all. Osborne just looks like he's being electrocuted.

Labour's Angela Eagle made short work of him. She has this charming dismissive humour to her which is very effective against the chancellor - and could actually work well against Cameron too. Whenever he did passably well, she'd undercut him. "The chancellor has done a bit more research this time," she said, recalling their last clash. "I regard that as a compliment."

She appeared to be overreaching herself when highlighting Tory splits over Europe. Of all the parties in the western world, Labour is not in a position to start pointing the finger at others for being divided. But she amusingly tried to push Osborne into explicitly saying that he agreed with the arguments of trade union leaders like Len McClusky and Frances O'Grady. She didn't quite succeed, but it was fun to watch and it was clever. It's been a while since we've said that of PMQs.

She wasn't perfect. One question was ridiculously long and didn't really have a point at the end of it. She spent much of the session reading off a sheet. All any Labour MP has to do now is walk without falling over to be proclaimed the only hope of the party, but realistically she isn't an obvious choice for the top job. Nevertheless, she offers a timely reminder that someone with a bit of smarts, someone who can think on their feet, can easily take on the modern Conservative party.

Osborne countered as forcefully as he could but Eagle didn't blink. "Seeing as the former London mayor [Boris Johnson] has called him demented, I wouldn't worry about Labour splits," she replied.

When she was done, SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson stood up to ask about a seven-year-old boy in Scotland being threatened with deportation to Australia alongside his family as part of the Home Office's typically brutal immigration enforcement programme.

If it had been Cameron he'd have said he'd heard of the case and would look into it, perhaps he'd be prepared to meet with someone to talk it over. It wouldn't make any difference at all. He'd change nothing, unless of course the media coverage became so widespread and damaging that it forced his hand. But he would give the impression of being concerned and imply that his next step - which in reality is to brush it under the carpet - was a potentially positive development for the family.

Osborne, by contrast, was a disaster. He dismissed the story with a sneer, said immigration rules had been broken and then demanded the SNP "create more enterprise" in the Highlands so they had more people. To call it complacent was an understatement. And there was a sense that that sneer wasn't just to the seven-year-old boy, but also to the public at large.

You can iron many of these types of political mistakes out. Osborne has gone through tonnes of media training and is, it must be said, much improved from how he used to present himself at the start of his political career. But you can't stamp out that type of instinctive misjudgement all the time. And you can't make a man whose body language and expressions are innately jarring look like a compelling proposition to the public.

If he leads the Tory party into the general election against Jeremy Corbyn he would probably still win. But if it's against anyone else, one struggles to imagine him being successful.

Vote Leave embarrass themselves with conspiracy theories

Once upon a time Vote Leave were going to be the professional, mainstream, positive Brexit campaign.

They recognised Nigel Farage's relentlessly Little England approach to politics wasn't going to reach beyond the hardcore rump of existing eurosceptics. They played down immigration because polling showed a quarter of the electorate would be turned off by that approach. They got respectable front bench politicians on board - people like Michael Gove, who are more motivated by arguments on sovereignty than they are by frenzied talk of borders and refugee waves. The brilliant Labour MP Gisela Stuart was made a vice-chair. The fact she was a left-wing woman with a foreign accent might have done something to address the growing sense that this was a xenophobic, right-wing sausage-fest.

But Vote Leave are now just another political grouping defined by the child-like paranoia and mean-spiritedness of the digital age. They behave exactly like aggressive below-the-line online commentators or Twitter mobs: questioning the motivation of the person making an argument rather than the argument itself, seeing conspiracy everywhere and issuing vague threats.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) released a report into the economic consequences of Brexit today. It said, like the IMF, Bank of England, Treasury and OECD said before it, that the consequences would be negative.

It's easy to raise questions about these kinds of forecasts. The variables are so severe, especially around projected impacts to the economy from the uncertainty around Brexit, that maybe the whole endeavour is misjudged. When the Treasury specifies what will happen to the British economy in 15 years' time, you really need a whole lorry-load of salt to deposit over it.

But whatever the substantive issues of the analysis, the IFS is a respectable institution. After the Budget we wait around for them to give their view, which is always a fair and impartial one, without favour to any party. They are not, and could not be described by any reasonable person, as a mouthpiece for the powers that be. And even if they hadn't demonstrated that time and time again, even if they were willing to engage in surreptitious campaigning, they are smart enough to know that it would destroy their reputation overnight.

The Vote Leave response saw them brand the group "a paid-up propaganda arm of the European Commission". It was depressingly predictable.

Tory MP John Redwood was on the Today programme today to take on the report and he did a passable job. But before he started he was given an opportunity to distance himself from that accusation. He chose the coward's way out. He wouldn't make it himself, but he smudged the arguments so as not to blunt it.

"I think the IFS are part of this cosy establishment which desperately wants to keep us in the European Union," he said.

"They have on this brochure they've issued today the UK In a Changing Europe logo, they say it's paid for by the Economics and Social Research Council, and they clearly buy into this general view that there would be unspecified negatives on our trade were we to leave the European Union. We've just heard that they do get money from European bodies and they get money from British official bodies as well."

It's a slightly different charge, you'll notice - a little bit more nuanced. It's not quite that they're a propaganda arm. It's that the funding revenue they receive has made them susceptible to pro-EU messages. But ultimately he had a chance to shoot down this style of campaigning and he didn't take it.

Redwood didn't need to do this. He could have refused to question the group's integrity while making the case against their forecasts. That wouldn't just be the moral or the truthful thing to do - it would be positive in campaigning terms as well. It would show that Vote Leave are not frothing-at-the-mouth paranoid conspiracy theorists, but decent people making a responsible argument. And that might ultimately make them a more reliable group in a referendum defined by notions of competing risks.

But the hope that Vote Leave might hold themselves to a high standard was dashed when they started firing off deranged emails following the announcement of the ITV debate between David Cameron and Nigel Farage. As it happens, they may be right here as well. The decision to invite Farage as oppose to someone from the official camp may very well have been organised with No10. It seems perfectly possible that it was, given Cameron's desperate bids to control the TV debates during the election.

But their response was quite, quite mad. "ITV has effectively joined the official IN campaign," the Vote Leave statement said. "There will be consequences for its future - the people in No10 won't be there for long."

It's classic internet rage: envision a conspiracy and then issue threats. Everyone who does not think like you is in the pay of the establishment.

And now we can expect more darkness to come. Vote Leave seem to have given up on making a compelling economic and political case for what Britain would look like outside the EU. They now see an avenue to victory through low turn out. And that kind of negative tactic means you need to galvanise your core vote, which means banging on about immigration: the nastiest message on the nastiest subject for the nastiest month of the campaign. It's come full circle. After dividing from Farage's camp because it was too nasty and immigration-focused, they now intend to adopt precisely those tactics themselves.

And the worst part is it's not even true. Brexit doesn't necessarily mean we'll leave the single market. Those who vote leave due to immigration might be surprised to find out that doing so didn't give them back 'control' over their borders at all.

For them to spout this nonsense and then accuse the Remain camp of engaging in Project Fear is deeply hypocritical. But more importantly, their tawdry tactics have deprived the public of a proper EU debate. All they got were misleading accusations of conspiracy theory and misleading statements on immigration. It’s a sad state for a campaign group which at one point looked like it might have something more positive and original to say.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Tristram Hunt's patronising ideas about patriotism will not win back the working class

If the Labour party wants to understand why it's losing the support of the working class I can only suggest it doesn't listen to a word Tristram Hunt is saying on the subject. According to the MP for Stoke-On-Trent the reason the party has become so disconnected from the people it's supposed to represent is because it's not patriotic enough.

Over the last few days he has written a number of articles to promote his new book on why Labour lost the last general election. It's made up of a collection of essays by MPs and party candidates who discuss the issues they faced during their campaigns. Almost all of them speak about working class communities feeling alienated from Labour. Hunt believes this is because the party has a "metropolitan squeamishness" about embracing Englishness. 

In the Guardian he wrote about how "Labour fails to embrace Englishness", in the Spectator he warned that "in language and policy we need to show we love England" and on Sky News he said that there is sense that "the Labour party is disconnecting from an English identity". Quite what any of this means is anyone's guess. Englishness will mean different things to different people, you only have to look at the Home Office's ‘Life in the UK’ test for immigrants to realise just how ridiculous this stuff gets when you try to define it. But when Hunt talks about this he’s specifically addressing working class communities. He speaks of the "white working men of Harlow" and of "Mrs Duffy's England".

It is not only incredibly patronising to suggest that the working class just need a bit of flag waving to engage them with politics, it's also deeply frustrating. This was an opportunity to look at the problems many working class communities face and to come up with real ways of reconnecting with them. Instead, Hunt and the other contributors to the book seem to recognise the issues but then just prescribe a dose of patriotism as a remedy.

It stems from the stereotype many people hold of the working class as being white van driving, uneducated racists. It is undeniable that immigration is a key issue for many people (not just the working class) but you don't quell those fears by banging on about how great England is. It is far more complex than that. For decades the working class have been demonised by the press, told they are work-shy scroungers, trouble makers, irresponsible and the cause of most of society's problems. The industries which were once the centre of their communities have been decimated and unemployment or low-paid insecure work is rife. There is no longer the sense of working class pride and solidarity of my grandparents' generation. If anything there is shame and anger. And so, when newcomers to the UK get an even worse press, there is a tendency for some to jump on that bandwagon, to rejoice that someone else is being portrayed as the lowest of the low. It's a kind of self preservation, a bit like the bullied kid in school who later becomes a bully.

Of course, there are also genuine concerns about school places, housing and jobs. But Labour can tackle all of these problems with decent policies and by involving working class people in local politics. They don't need to come across as some sort of watered-down Ukip. You don't fix divisions within communities by reinforcing them with yet more divisive politics.

In almost all the articles Hunt has written on the subject over the last few days he brings up Emily Thornberry's tweet during the general election campaign about the house in Rochester which was draped in St George's flags. He clearly thinks this was an incident which damaged the Labour party with working class voters. Of course, the tweet was ill-judged but it was a much a bigger issue for the political journalists covering the election than it was normal people. Most of my family live on council estates, I texted a few of them yesterday to ask if they remembered Thornberry's tweet. Only one did. This kind of thing is what middle-class, highly educated people believe the working class are concerned about rather than what they actually are.

The reason Hunt and so many other Labour people get this wrong is because they have no real understanding of the lives of the working class. There was a time when a MP may have previously worked down the pits or in the shipyard but now they are far more likely to have studied PPE at Oxbridge. If the Labour party wants to reconnect with the working class it needs more working class MPs. Communities in the north-east have very different concerns to those in Essex. The party needs to be recruiting local people who understand local issues. What they most definitely do not need to do is send a load of middle-class candidates onto council estates to start banging on about how great England is. It's like when David Cameron tries to talk about football. It just doesn't wash.

Until Labour starts looking and sounding like the people it's supposed to represent it will continue to lose working class voters. And if it wants to start winning again it needs to give people something to vote for. The reason the Tories won the last election wasn't because of their love for queen and country. It was because they had a clear message which resonated with voters. It's been a long time since Labour could say the same.

Natalie Bloomer is a journalist for Politics.co.uk

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

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