Jack Blackburn 10.40am
Jack Blackburn 9.58am
I write this with a heavy heart. It has hitherto been my fervent belief that the Church of England is an organisation of tremendous value to this country, providing an important voice to public debate and articulating beliefs and positions with sincerity and without a glance toward whether they might be popular.
This is admirable and important in a democracy, and entirely in keeping with a truly secular democracy that such a voice is heard, and it is so with other religions.
However, the Church of England stands at a crossroads. Opposition to same-sex marriage puts it on a collision course with the state, and increasingly it sounds and behaves in an antediluvian fashion, pushing it further and further away from the concerns of its parishioners and from the heartbeat of national discourse.
Crucially, some of the theological arguments fostered in the communion are growing increasingly dishonest, refusing to admit the validity of new ideas and clinging with all of the fastness of rigor mortis to outdated mores and the narrowest possible view of the world.
It must be stressed that this is not the case for every member of the CofE. It certainly has not been the case for the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, and I have every confidence that his successor will uphold and defend the best traditions of this great institution.
As this week has shown, it is not even the case with the majority of the Synod. However, the actions of a grimly determined minority have moved the Church to the point of irrelevance. This can only be rectified when it recognises the ability and God-given right of women to preach at all levels.
Some of the blame must lie with the voting structures of the Synod that has blocked the voice of the majority, but it should never have come to this.
The fact of the matter is this: the only theological tenets that an enlightened believer can hold to are that God created us equal, Jesus treated us all as equals and, whatever truth there is in the words and actions of Christ, that truth can be expressed by any one of us, black or white, straight or gay, male or female.
The decision to block female bishops may be the wish of a minority that is at best misguided and at worst bigoted, but it is not the will of a God who came to Earth and revealed his greatest message of resurrection first to a woman. Imagine if Jesus had told Mary that she was unable to preach the good news. Where would the Church be then?
God did not create us into roles. Man put us into them. Man should know his place.
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Jack Blackburn 3.55pm
It was not the most inspiring session of PMQs. The Leader of the Opposition’s strategy was non-existent. Questions were a bit scatter-gun and he didn’t really make any points. Perhaps it was the impending Hillsborough statement that made the atmosphere a touch quieter than typical.
But if it was just for the day, Mr Cameron should consider keeping this style.
Edward was calling him “Mr Butch”, but today Dave was Mr Chillaxing. He was quiet, controlled, on top of his brief. He didn’t lose his cool at any point. He didn’t shout. He didn’t even tell a female Member to calm down.
He only changed tone to crack a few jokes (apparently the Labour party has hired a new guru called Mr J. Hacker, who has written a book called The Road to Nowhere, allowing DC to roll out some lines from his “Cheap but effective” line).
There was even some substance as well, as the Prime Minister enjoyed some positive employment figures. Indeed, with his chillax on, Mr Cameron seemed to make more sense. He was (as ever) accused of complacency by the Labour party leader, but he actually came across as thoughtful, and honest, at one point saying the Mr Miliband was “absolutely right, the long-term employment figured are disturbing”.
After a year when the Prime Minister’s fortunes have seemingly mirrored those of Glasgow Rangers FC, one of his smaller problems has been his performance at PMQs, as he became frequently and easily riled by Ed Balls, and seemed to be struggling with Mr Miliband’s improved act.
Today he seemed like a changed man and more prime ministerial than he has been for a while, an impression backed up by his well-judged statement on Hillsborough.
On Monday, Mr Cameron was Boris Johnson’s warm-up man at the end of the Team GB parade, the Mayor of London delivering a rip-roaring speech.
Mr Johnson’s challenges with public speaking are different from the Prime Minister’s, but the Mayor is effective because he is always himself. Mr Cameron could learn from this. He is a thoughtful and intelligent man. If he continues to take his time and bring these qualities to the fore, he may find that he engages better with the public.
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Jack Blackburn 3.30pm
As Dave and Edward know (both being Oxonians) it is Commemoration Ball season: a time for dancing.
There was an element of that at PMQs today and, in the manner of the modern day ball, the participants were dancing without much discernible sense of rhythm. The music playing at the moment is much more to Edward’s taste than Dave’s, but everyone’s bringing out their own moves. Just don’t call it a U-turn. It’s a volte face.
These days, Edward Miliband has many dances he can trot out, but he chose the fuel duty “U-turn”: the latest contribution to the budgeting omnishambles, made all the more embarrassing by Chloe Smith’s unfortunate “Michael Howard moment” on Newsnight last night.
“U-turn? What U-turn?”, said Dave, claiming that it was a Labour tax they were getting rid of. “Ever since we came to office we have been defusing Labour’s tax bombshell.”
Dave’s major implication though was that the Leader of the Opposition was two-faced. He supports Lords Reform but is against the programme motion. He’s for stopping the increases in fuel duty, but against the Government’s “change of mind” to do so. The line Mr Cameron is trying to lay down by implication is that Mr Miliband is an opportunist.
Even though the Government has so far had an annus horribilis, there is no denying that Mr Miliband has looked more like a scavenger of their misery, than a viable alternative. This is despite a definite improvement in his personal style, most obviously marked in his weekly performances at PMQs. Nevertheless, he still cannot land a knockout blow, or even score open goals. The judges should be giving him nines and tens at present, but Edward’s twinkle-toes often leave himself at sixes and sevens.
Edward’s major problem is his lack of detail; his insistence on repeating debatable, rhetorical points as if they were indisputable facts. Things are going for him at the moment, but he just isn’t producing. What will happen when the fortunes turn, and the government starts getting the rub of the green?
Furthermore, the Government couldn’t be doing more to help Edward out. Today, while defending George Osborne’s alleged “cowardice” in not facing the press yesterday, the Prime Minister said that the Chancellor had faced the Commons, and in doing so had “wrong-footed” Ed Balls. That’s all well and good, but George Osborne’s adroit volte face wrong-footed everyone, to the point that Cabinet ministers were briefing for the increase all through yesterday morning, and poor Chloe Smith was sent up Newsnight creek, without a paddle, or a boat.
With all of this ammunition at his disposal, Edward still failed to score a clear win today. One wonders how he will dance when the music’s no longer to his liking.
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The last Prime Minister’s Questions for three weeks before a joint Jubilee and Whitsun recess was a distinctly bizarre scoreless draw.
It didn’t so much resemble the two most senior politicians in the land debating matters of policy, as it did two angry siblings who simply weren’t listening to each other. Oh, and there was an irritating cousin thrown into the mix.
Edward Miliband’s tactic today was divide and rule. It is one we can expect to see more of over the coming months. Seeking to exploit the evident antagonism between the Business Secretary and Adrian Beecroft, author of this week’s controversial report on employment reform, the Leader of the Opposition set about asking where the Prime Minister stood.
This strategy is brazen but flawed, not least because all the front bench Lib Dems were strangely absent, thereby not allowing for television shots of awkward Lib Dems.
However, Mr Cameron avoided fulsomely embracing the report, suggesting that some recommendations would be taken and others would not, before the major exchange descended into an unstructured melee.
Edward tried to score points on, well, just about anything: Hunt, Coulson, growth, tax cuts for millionaires - they were all there, culminating in his claim that “the nasty party is back”. Dave started banging on about the trade unions influence on Labour policy. All of the questions and the answers seem to have been decided quite some time before the session. It was a total damp squib.
The meat of the session actually took place after the Leader of the Opposition had sat down. The Prime Minister was asked about the ECHR’s ruling on voting rights for prisoners. The Prime Minister said he would stand for the sovereignty of Parliament and his belief that going to prison meant you lost certain rights, including the right to vote. This is a story that shall keep on rolling.
However, the headlines were stolen by that irritating cousin, namely Ed Balls. He repeatedly asked the Prime Minister how many glasses of wine he’d had, and needled the Flashman in Dave, as is his desire. Finally, by now having “we’re in recession” chanted at him by Mr Balls, Dave could take no more and Flashman flipped. He described the Shadow Chancellor as a “muttering idiot”, causing uproar in the chamber.
Succumbing to goading as such an easy thing to do. It is also easy to wind someone up. However, both these important public figures should not be doing it. Mr Cameron was forced to withdraw his “unparliamenatry” comment. Mr Balls is not subject to sanction. Speaker Bercow, of the pseudo-Headmasterly air, should perhaps get in touch with that instinct now, because these two schoolboys could use some discipline.
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Jack Blackburn 2.08pm
The Government’s fortunes and the composure of its ministers have crumbled over recent months, though it is worth noting that the Leader of the Opposition’s polling numbers have still not managed to match his party’s.
So as we arrived at the first PMQs since April we found a leadership vacuum, created by a Government in disarray, a Prime Minister under pressure from all sides, and a Labour party leader seemingly unable to act like a leader.
This PMQs also took place in a very different context to the last. Disastrous local election results (London’s Mayor aside) for the Coalition parties still sting. The national economy seems to have tumbled into a double-dip recession. We are being badly buffeted by continuing turmoil in the Eurozone, where an anti-austerity Frenchman has just taken up residence in the Élysée palace and Greece is crippled by political upheaval.
To use a recent (and for me painful) sporting illustration, the leaders were level on points going into today’s match, with Mr Miliband ahead on goal difference. This was a mid-term fixture rather than an end-of-season cliff-hanger, but it as was scrappy, messy and confused as the Premier League’s climax, if nowhere near as exciting too.
Mr Miliband has plenty of arsenal at his disposal at the moment. Dreadful growth figures, unhappy nurses, protesting police officers, the controversial Leveson Inquiry, electoral reverses and the seemingly changing political breeze in Europe should have meant that Mr Cameron was in for a torrid time at the Despatch Box. Nevertheless, there was a crumb of comfort for the Prime Minister today in the form of falling unemployment.
Mr Cameron began by using this to his advantage, welcoming a question from his own backbenches, but stressing (as all the Cabinet has done this morning) that the Government is not complacent. There is more to be done. Etcetera. And for once, Mr Miliband also welcomed good economic news, but was quick to try to press home some advantage by questioning what discussions the PM had taken part in with President Hollande about growth plans for France and Europe.
The answer could have simply been, “Well, haven’t really spoken to him since he was elected.” So Edward suggested a text message with “LOL” in it would probably be sufficient. Uncharacteristically funny, and well delivered.
In fact, Mr Miliband’s entire style of performance has improved immensely. He is calm, considered and no longer whiny. Nonetheless, Mr Cameron remains an adept performer himself, and responded strongly: “I may well have used my mobile phone too much, but at least as Prime Minister I know how to use one rather than just throw it at those who work with me”. The Rt Hon Member for Kirkcaldy was, as usual, nowhere to be seen.
Mr Miliband was indeed more impressive today, though still blew it by failing once again to capitalise effectively on the Prime Minister’s all-too-evident woes. He left the economy debate too quickly, so eager was he to cram in questions on policing and nurses, while also failing to pose a question on his sixth time of coming. The eyes were bigger than his abilities.
Yet Mr Cameron also fumbled the ball today, particularly with his final response to his opponent, when he attempted to criticise Labour’s new policy supremo John Cruddas as someone too close to the trades unions. At moments such as those, one realises just how little ammunition the Prime Minister has at his disposal.
Jack Blackburn 6.00am
Church and State are talking at crossed purposes on gay marriage, but what goes unnoticed is that this confusion goes right to the heart of our nation’s constitution.
As far as the State is concerned, homosexual relationships should be treated coterminously with heterosexual relationships. By extension of this fact, gay marriage ought to be permitted and accepted.
However, from a theological perspective, this is contradictory and nonsensical. Marriage is a sacrament, a central pillar of the Christian faith, and defined as exclusively heterosexual.
Christians are entitled to that view. And in somewhere such as the United States, where Church and State are separate, they can agree to disagree in this fashion. But here in Britain, with an established Church, that is a luxury we cannot presently enjoy.
The Church of England is directly affected by what is spoken in Parliament and what Her Majesty the Queen - the Supreme Head of the Church - signs into law. There is no getting around that. The Queen cannot give her royal assent to a Bill legalising gay marriage without challenging a tenet of the Church. We have here a real dilemma. We must be honest about this, but of course something has got to give eventually.
It would be welcome to hear a dissenting Christian voice loud and clear - following the Prime Minister’s own statements on the subject - because the theological debate is not open and shut.
Indeed, to say that marriage is a union that can only exist between a man and a woman is lazy, unsubtle and vacuous. It does a disservice to what the institution should mean.
The explicit definition of marriage as exclusively heterosexual is derived from texts written more than two millennia ago by people living in a homophobic world that demanded the execution of homosexual men.
The modern Christian, called by Jesus to make love their first and only aim, should realise that the old ways are not beyond question. In fact, they are challenged by that stronger tenet of love.
The true essence of marriage is the formation of a loving union - if that is between people of the same gender or different genders, it ought not matter. The loving God would be more pleased by the gay couple who spend their entire lives together than the man of many marriages.
Nevertheless, this does not rest easily with the theological conclusions of many Christians across the country who, I hasten to add, are not homophobic by nature. These Christians will maintain that marriage is a sacrament, clearly defined, and the word cannot simply be borrowed by the State to fulfil its social aims.
The word and the institution are of central importance to Christian faith. This is the responsible view of Tony Baldry, Conservative MP for North Oxfordshire, and the Church Commissioners. (The faux-amusing rhetoric of Peter Bone and insulting language of Cardinal O’Brien are contributions we could do without, and which do their side of the argument no good at all.)
This is yet another issue that indicates why the Church must begin to remove itself from State affairs. Neither Church nor State any longer benefit from their connection; rather, they suffer from it, finding not greater strength but deeper division.
In this instance, the Church is being held hostage to a legislature that is doing what it thinks is best for society. It has a democratic mandate to do so. Therein lies the problem for the Church today: it represents only one section of modern British society, for which Parliament must legislate, and yet the Church unduly influences, and is influenced by, that Parliament.
The need for separation is increasingly apparent and urgent. However, it cannot happen while the Queen is head of both. The dilemma shall continue unresolved.
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Jack Blackburn 1.39pm
There they were, their entourages in tow, ready for the latest bout in this series of fights organised by the NHS and Andrew Lansley. In the blue corner, the reigning champion, Dave “Flashman” Cameron. In the red corner, his spindly challenger, Edward “Not to be confused with David” Miliband.
Cameron entered the arena, flanked by his regular posse of Clegg and Hague, the latter offering vocal support, and the former performing an amusing mime act entitled, “Don’t do anything”.
Miliband, however, shook up his team, pushing Ed “Gesticulating” Balls to one side and replacing him with Andy “Eyebrows” Burnham. The scene was set. The atmosphere was expectant. The referee was impotent.
Edward tried to get an attack going with a few jabs, pointing at the ridiculous NHS summit from Monday. But Dave held his defence initially, deciding on a tactic of skipping round Edward, evading his questions.
So Edward tried again, and briefly there was some excitement in the ring as Dave fought back, challenging his opponent to ask a question about the substance of the bill. He said that Labour used to be in favour of choice, competition and GPs being in charge of budgets, but now they’re against it.
This should have been the start of a classic encounter, but a melee broke out around them and the chamber descended into utter chaos. Burnham began shouting with such verbosity that even Balls was impressed by, nay jealous of, such talents.
When Andrew Lansley tried to hand his pugilist some notes, Edward jumped on him like a cat: “The Prime Minister doesn’t want advice from you!” John “Squeaker” Bercow intervened for the 27th time in the session. He had been up and down like a jack-in-the-box, but nobody was paying any attention.
After which, Cameron stood up when it wasn’t even his question. There were howls, whoops, laughs and jeers. It was as like hearing the canned laughter tracks from the BBC’s radiophonic workshop on a diabolical loop.
Cameron called his Labour opponents “rank opportunists”, once again neatly avoiding answering any questions. Edward said that this was going to become Cameron’s “Poll Tax”, once again neatly avoiding making any statements of policy.
As a debate it was dreadful, but as spectacle it was joyous. Edward Miliband was actually quite funny. You’d have to have been there, but he was funny.
In fact, we’ve seen a real improvement from Edward this term. One wonders how he’ll fare on a topic other than the NHS. He can’t keep this up for three years.
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