Ya-boo antics in the House, Cameron's signals, northern exposure and art for everyone



The green leather-bound visitors' book for the Parliamentary Press Gallery contains a roll call of former prime ministers, including Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Major and Blair. There in elegant fountain pen are the signatures of Prince Philip and Prince Charles. On Thursday, the newest name was Chuka Umunna, a future contender for the Labour leadership, even if he shies away from the question every time he is asked.

Umunna's pitch to journalists last week – while professing loyalty to Ed Miliband – was for a calmer, quieter Prime Minister's Question Time, because, he says, politics has become too tribal, ridiculously adversarial, as he put it. Voters are put off by the "Punch and Judy" barracking at 12pm every Wednesday. He did not mention his colleague, Ed Balls, who since New Year has toned down his PMQs gymnastics, but he clearly includes the shadow Chancellor among people who are "too tribal" in the chamber. Politics in the UK has reached a "crisis", Umunna said.

He is right to describe the way Westminster is viewed by voters in such dramatic terms. Trust remains low nearly five years on from the expenses scandal. Voters hear the Commons as a wall of white noise, with the occasional slice of scandal, hypocrisy or shambles emerging from it. Yet I wonder whether the answer to this is turning PMQs, the pithy half-hour drama that is like a fix of Coronation Street or EastEnders, into a longer-winded select committee session that is harder to follow – like a two hour documentary on BBC Four. Umunna thinks women in particular are put off by the "ya-boo" of PMQs. I told him I didn't agree. Apart from making the mistake of generalising about an entire gender, surely politics is argument? One of the greatest performers at the dispatch box was Margaret Thatcher. She relished the clashes, which were, in her time, twice-weekly sessions of 15 minutes.

If Umunna looks around him on the Opposition benches, he will see plenty of female colleagues who enjoy the political knockabout in the Chamber, including Yvette Cooper, Lyn Brown and Lucy Powell.

With PMQs, it is easier for David Cameron to cut through that white noise. He can be populist over Lib Dem and Labour peers killing the EU referendum bill. For Labour it is near-impossible. Miliband's trade union reforms are significant, but the detail will barely register with voters. The only thing that matters to "ordinary" people is that the Labour leader is reducing the power of the unions.

It is likely that the first televised leaders' debate for the 2015 election will take place next February. This means Miliband must wait a year before he can get the full attention of Coronation Street viewers. Until then, the Labour front bench must rely on unashamed populism to cut through, or else their polls lead is meaningless. There is no time to be high-minded and consensual. They have to get a bit shouty.

So, Luciana Berger's proposed ban on smoking in front of children in cars is, while controversial to libertarians, a populist, easily understood measure. People remember Miliband's energy price freeze. Balls's 50p tax rate pledge, while irritating the City, is also popular with mainstream voters. Labour's poll lead is soft, even those in Miliband's circle realise that. And now all parties have to compete with Ukip, whose red-meat populism comes with a side order of wackiness that is frequently overlooked or forgiven by voters. I hear that, while not yet finalised, the door to Nigel Farage taking part in those 2015 leaders' debates has not been slammed shut by the mainstream parties. The Ukip leader could, after all, fill the "new boy" role that Nick Clegg took in the 2010 leaders' debates.

Next week's Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election should be an easy win for Labour, who had a well-loved MP in the late Paul Goggins. But it is not fanciful to say Ukip might win. The working-class northern seat is rich hunting ground for Farage. Labour's candidate needs to sell the promise of what a One Nation Labour government would mean to constituencies like this – where Coronation Street wins every time over BBC Four. Miliband needs some populism to avoid a damaging defeat on 13 February. I am afraid, Chuka, the Labour leader needs to be as adversarial as he can.


Cameron's pub lunch at the Swan Inn with François Hollande on Friday tried to satisfy three audiences. First, with a half pint of Hook Norton's Old Hooky, the PM ticked the "quirky diplomacy" box – always handy when the discussions on the table are tricky, in the shape of EU reform. Second, Cameron sent a message to his Eurosceptic backbenchers that he was not rolling out the red carpet for the federalist, socialist French president, he was merely taking him down the pub. Third, the lunch allowed for a photo opportunity of a PM, so often accused of being out of touch, actually at the bar of an actual pub having an actual pint – sorry, half pint. Different messages calibrated for a visiting head of state, his political party, and the voters. But who does the PM care about the most?

Tory trials

The deselection of the Tory veteran MP Anne McIntosh in Thirsk and Malton means that five of the Conservative women elected in 2010 are to leave Parliament, which is depressing. Yet her constituency difficulties are not just about gender. This area of North Yorkshire, which boasts some of England's most beautiful countryside, is dominated by Tory farming gentry. Yet it's also becoming more modern. Malton, which until a few years ago was a declining market town, has a smart new restaurant run by television chef James Martin and a new raft of trendy boutiques. I understand some of the association wanted a more thrusting MP to represent the seat.

Child's play at the Tate

When nine-year-old Sissi Belle Bolongaro Trevor clambered on to a $10m artwork at Tate Modern last week, it triggered convulsions of outrage. Did her parents not realise how valuable the installation was? Sissi Belle's mother, Kait Bolongaro, responded saying that the little girl and her sister, Harper Bea, adore art, and have climbed Henry Moore sculptures and the Diana Memorial. In any case, the girl didn't cause any damage and was only climbing for a matter of seconds while her aunt was not looking. "Sissi has always been anti-establishment," her mother added, while her father said it would be "horrendous" to ban children from art galleries. You may scoff at the girls' names and their free-range behaviour. OK, she shouldn't have done it, but the parents are right. Art should be for everyone, regardless of age or class. Parents should not be vilified for encouraging their children's obsessions.


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