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Live Event Markings
Live PMQs: First Graves vs Ward clash. 9th September 2019.

Firstly, I'd like to thank everyone who got involved, and particular to Recks, Ward and (late smh) Mac for making the time to be there. 

I’ll give a rundown of the clash between the PM and LotO, and then between the PM and Rebecca Flair, before summing up with the general feeling of the encounters.

After a nice, tame question to the Prime Minister by Christopher Barker about the economy, which Lewis Graves fielded well and reassured all interested that he would pay close attention to the nation’s economic performance at large, Calvin Ward opened his close examination of the PM with the particularly relevant matter of preventing further terrorist attacks on British soil. For me, this first question (and the second that was effectively the same) didn’t really see a point to it. It was, certainly, the right kind of question to deliver, but didn’t come with the punches, criticism or cheap joke that really sells it. Now admittedly, none of those would have looked good in the introduction to it, instead there was rightfully a degree of respectfulness in the air. But these elements really should have come into play when the PM’s answer didn’t satisfy Ward. Instead, Graves came away looking like he had a close eye for the details of the situation, and without an alternative plan, or at least suggestions, from Ward, the PM was allowed to look like a leader with a grasp of the situation. Make no mistake, it was not a poor start for either leader - in fact both seemed relatively in control within their own realm - but frankly it was a wasted opportunity that allowed Graves to deliver what he wanted to say on the matter. It was also slightly odd that the PM was allowed to turn the table, going after “anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism”, whilst the LotO glazed over it and into his third question. No doubt, it was a good look for Graves to go on the offensive.

But where I criticise Ward for the lack of punch on the first two questions, his role clicked on the third, and delivered the excellent question, “Turning to the NHS, the Deputy Prime Minister has already taken his knife and fork out to carve up the NHS. The Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary have their plates ready as well. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that the NHS isn't for sale?”. The British public are, probably rightly, concerned about the treatment of public services under Graves’ predecessors, and so the question - backed up with a clever line that journos could easily grab onto - fell on responsive ears. Yes, the PM’s assessment that this question was, “scare mongering” is probably true, but the somewhat lukewarm, “I… am [nb: only] supportive of free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare” gives room for the possibility that the NHS is protected for now, but not necessarily indefinitely. It’s a fine dodge to say that the Health Secretary will look into it, but it doesn’t lead to massive confidence that the PM cares as much about the service as he so clearly does about the embassy bombing. Ward’s follow up ending with, “If half the Cabinet are leading one direction, and he is leading the other, who is leading the country?” hurt Graves, especially when he chose to take the throw away line as the main takeaway from the LotO’s important cross examination of NHS policy. There was a clear reminder of how the Tories have shaped health policy over the past decade, and the lack of refutation leaves Ward painted as a defender of the NHS, and Graves as PM that is yet to show interest in the subject. The only let down was the final ‘question’, which didn’t have a question at all. It is all good to use prime airtime to go after an opponent’s historical policies, but without a question it again lets the PM off the hook, and gives him space to shout about the benefits that his party has delivered. “If you want to Ward off prosperity” is a particularly good line. It doesn’t deflate Ward’s questions about the NHS though, and he comes off better on the service.

Then - after a brief interlude about anti-semitism - up came Rebecca Flair to take the PM to task with a double whammy of detail intensive economic policy questions. Graves wasn’t superb, but neither was he bad on the matter. It’s always a climb down to criticise a core tenet of policy from a government you now lead, but it was somewhat graceful, and suggests that the Prime Minister is willing to listen to facts, not to pure ideology. With the second question, Flair hammered home her point, correlating poor economic understanding amongst government ministers with the bungling of the ERM. The response was reasonable, and it did the job, though not masses more. But, frankly, it didn’t really need to. Graves set out the rhetoric stall, and his base loved it, even if the wider country is a little dissapointed there wasn't more to it.

In the minds of journalists, PMQs was probably a narrow win for Graves. That’s not to say he was without shortcomings - or that Ward lacked wins - but the fact that the PM looked Prime Ministerial, and in control of detail - other than on the NHS - made him out to be a capable, competent and hardworking leader. Having said that, I thought that when Graves and the LotO ‘clashed’ (i.e. question two, when they were in the swing of joked, put downs etc.) Ward came off stronger. I would recommend that next time the PM is not given open opportunities to talk up the record of the government (the lack of a fifth ‘question’ didn’t help). Go for a question, and back it up with a punchy line or a joke in the follow up to it. Each should be pleased with their respective performance though, and from the initial reaction both are seen as Prime Ministerial material.

Now that Mac is on the Ateam, I need not give a longform sum up of Flair’s interaction with the PM, but I thought the Lib Dem held her own and gave the PM a light bollocking - though Graves came back swinging.

A nice performance all round. I will be giving xp to Graves and Ward for a good contest, and to Max Power for a good question (and some nice heckling after it) - he is increasingly becoming a fan favourite amongst the watching public.

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