PMQs verdict: Tories prefer cheers to ‘annihilation’
The Conservative backbenchers won PMQs this week. One Tory MP told me afterwards the party is embracing the idea of "unity" over the alternative of "annihilation" next year. When you put it like that, it makes sense they would cheer David Cameron to the rafters.
It didn't really matter what the PM and Ed Miliband were actually debating. I understood it had something to do with jobs, or the cost of living, or something. My attention was focused on the ranks of MPs behind the two party leaders. On the one hand, opposition MPs could barely rouse themselves to offer 'hear-hears' when Miliband spoke. On the other, the Tories were yelling themselves hoarse.
What a difference a reshuffle makes. Let's not get carried away: the frontbench was not transformed beyond recognition. But it felt very different. With the exception of Nick Clegg, the sole reminder that the Conservatives didn't actually win an overall majority in 2010, the entirety of the government bench was Tory. There was the yawning new foreign secretary Philip Hammond, sat next to his uncomfortably broad-shouldered replacement at the Ministry of Defence, Michael Fallon. Nicky Morgan and Liz Truss were taking in their new positions quietly. George Osborne sat leaning forward, ready to mutter lines into Cameron's ear. Rarely has a reshuffle had quite so rejuvenating an effect. To Cameron's right, the new backroom duo of William Hague and Michael Gove gazed out inscrutably.
Ah, Michael Gove. Miliband did the right thing in focusing his opening questions on the former education secretary's fate. As the Labour leader wondered why Gove had been "sacked" the new chief whip offered his usual range of uncomfortable facial expressions, all the while slowly getting redder and redder. There was the simper. The frown. And then that raised-eyebrow curio which turns his whole face into a question-mark. Afterwards, in the corridors of the Commons, Gove was offered good luck by a well-wisher. His 'thank you' in reply seemed deeply fervent.
At least Gove has a job. The Tory backbenches are littered with former ministers who have served Cameron and are now mere onlookers. Andrew Mitchell, virtually exonerated but yet ignored (and sitting about as far from Cameron as it's possible to). Cheryl Gillan, a volatile presence at the back of the chamber. Andrew Lansley, just in front of her, his arms folded and his bluff face as impassive as ever. The green-minded Greg Barker, discarded on the scrapheap at the bar of the House (perhaps he wants to be recycled).
Those who had lost their jobs and bothered to show up (Ken Clarke, notably, was among those missing) had the right approach. Immersed in a crowd of Tories, they were able to realise quite how quickly the Conservatives are now coming together. This reshuffle was about winning power next year. The reforms are over. The next few months are about delivery, yes, but more importantly they are about winning the arguments. The Tories realise this; and this week they took to vocalising it as loudly as they possibly could.
They cheered Miliband for standing up to ask his questions. They cheered him when he declared that Cameron is "in his fifth year as prime minister". They pointed and laughed when Miliband declared: "This is totally desperate stuff." And they roared their approval at Cameron's best line of the exchanges: "Everyone can see the contrast. In this party the leader reshuffles the Cabinet. In his party, the shadow Cabinet desperately want to reshuffle the leader."