PMQS verdict: Thornberry and Reckless steal the show

Reckless appearance saves the day
Reckless appearance saves the day
Ian Dunt By

There are six long months of utterly predictable exchanges between David Cameron and Ed Miliband to go, so it came as welcome relief when Emily Thornbery's tweet and Mark Reckless' betrayal made us all forget about it for a little while.

This week's PMQs was a tepid affair. Nothing dreadful, but nothing engaging either. Miliband led on the NHS, which he is likely to do as often as possible until May. "The NHS in England is at breaking point," he said. It's a "crisis of his making".

Cameron told him he was raising "a problem he created". He repeated several times that you only get a strong health services with a strong economy. It's his link between what he polls strongly on – the economy – and what he polls weakly on – the health service. It's all utter drivel and tremendously boring.

So it was with considerable relief that we watched Nadhim Zahawi stand up and celebrate England to the point of organ failure. The Tory backbencher said Shakespeare was "his constituent", which suggests the man had a longevity of which Prospero would have been proud. He then recited his love letter to England with such excessive passion he turned red and the veins on his face started to look as if they might burst.


The target, of course, was Thornberry's much-criticised tweet about a white van and some St George's flags in Rochester and Strood during the by-election, which ended up costing her her job as shadow attorney general.

Cameron seized on the question and criticised Labour for "sneering at those who work hard and love their country". He noted Thornberry's absence and observed that she was probably "out taking pictures of people's homes". He'd had days to prepare some white van jokes but that was all he had to offer.

Not so for shadow health minister Jamie Reed, who replied: "The first thing I think when I see a white van is whether it's my father or my brother driving it."

He then looked pointedly at Cameron. It was an excellent line which instantly turned the joke back on the Tories. For whatever damage Labour may have received over the tweet – and polling suggests they didn't – the Tories are not going to win a fight over who is most in touch with the working man.

Mark Reckless, the newly minted Ukip MP, spent much of the session standing and sitting in a bid to get the Speaker's attention. It had to come eventually, but of course when it did he was drowned out in a bellow of mockery and booing. It was predictable stuff, but Reckless seemed quite unnerved by it and looked rather desperately to the Speaker to restore order. He was stood close to where Simon Hughes once aspired for Betty Boothroyd's mercy against a cruel Commons chamber. Fortunately for him, John Bercow is more generous than his predecessor.

He tried out a line which I found rather witty at 5am on Thursday night – "I'm grateful to the prime minister for spending so much time in Rochester and Strood" – but which fell flat in the Commons. Maybe the line ages badly, or he was too nervous to deliver it, or I was half-mad with exhaustion last week. He then wisely shifted the focus to his local hospital, which is in a terrible state.

His majority is a relatively modest 2,920. He could lose the seat rather easily in 2015 and he knows it, so expect Reckless to focus relentlessly on these local issues between now and then. Douglas Carswell has rather more wriggle room.

The PM's answer was short and to the point, but he couldn’t resist a parting shot. "The only thing I fail to understand is why he has decided to join a party that doesn't believe in the NHS and wants to break it up."

Reckless shook his head in response. Cameron seemed relieved to finally be able to be on the attack on the health service, rather than the defence. Everyone else was relieved that they didn't have to sit through another exchange between him and Miliband for another seven days. There's plenty more of this to come, but we won't always have a Thornberry or a Reckless to distract us.

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