Broom broom. That was the noise that PMQs made today. Britain’s ebullient car sector is the only sliver of happiness the government can glean from our wimpering, faltering, flat-lining economy. And Cameron brought up the broom-brooms as soon as he possibly could. First he had to deal with Ed Miliband who started the session with one of those casual, chatty questions which are designed to make the PM look like a berk by quoting his words back to his face.
‘After two and half years in government,’ Ed began, ‘the PM returned from his break and said he now realises it’s time to cut through the dither. What did he have in mind?’
Beautifully barbed. But Cameron returned strongly. ‘He’s had all summer to think of a question. Is that really the best he can do?’
They then tussled, fruitlessly, over various bungled government initiatives. Miliband told of us a shiny new infrastructure programme, announced last year, which has produced no infrastructure at all. And there was a house-building plan which has failed to lay so much as one brick upon another. And a road-building strategy which remains entirely road-free. These embarrassments provided the sort of bloodless, ritualised dust-up that we’ve come to expect from these two. Ed chucks. Dave ducks. Ed flings. Dave flannels. It’s like a game of TV ping-pong played by two computers whose programmers have died of old age.
Having dealt with Miliband by claiming, rather bizarrely, that his government is ‘strong and united, (you what, Dave?), the prime minister moved onto cars.
Nicola Blackwood heaped praise on BMW for investing squillions in the former Cowley car-plant sited in her constitiuency. Dave replied by saluted the Germans for availing of his government’s pro-busines culture. Britain today, he gushed, is a net exporter of vehicles. ‘And this hasn’t happened since the 1970s,’ he added, (although those figures included thousands of Austin Allegros and Princesses dumped in the sea by their frustrated owners).
The sound of car-horns rang out again from Gavin Williamson. The member for South Staffordshire stood up and declared that Jaguar Landrover’s investment in Britain represented a stark contrast ‘between the rhetoric of Labour and the delivery of this government.’ Well memorised, Mr Williamson. Conservative whips must be delighted that rote-learning is still alive and well in the Tory shires.
After cars came a bigger, noisier, and much trickier form of transport. Aircraft. Mark Garnier politely asked the prime minister to remember regional airports in his future aviation strategy. Cameron steadied himself at the dispatch box and announced that he was going to be ‘very frank’ about this. And viewers at home steadied themselves and prepared to be told a humungous whopper. Cameron told us that it was ‘very difficult for individual governments to take, and to deliver, long-term infrastructure decisions.’ He then added rather obscurely that a statement would be coming in a few days’ time. But it ‘wouldn’t happen unless the parties sign up to it.’
Westminster cryptologists will pore over this formula for the rest of the day. And possibly for some of tomorrow as well. It’s significant that Ed Miliband didn’t say a peep about airports. And Cameron will be aware that the opposition are in a pickle over this. His coded invitation for them to participate in his plan, whatever that may be, is a clear attempt to make their pickle worse. If Cameron comes out in favour of Airstrip Three, and does so without Labour’s agreement, he’ll be able to paint them as a gang of ditherers, dark agers and business-nobbling half-wits who think Britain’s future imports can be delivered by a fleet of hot-air balloons drifting in on the jet-stream in swallow-formation.
Before that, however, the PM has to deal with his manifesto pledge. This was raised by John McDonnell who represents the jumbo-riddled constituency of Hayes and Harlington. He asked Cameron quite bluntly to ‘rule out a third runway, no ifs or buts’.
Absolutely squire, said the prime minister. He would not ‘break the manifesto commitment’. But then he re-iterated his mysterious codicil about ‘a review that brings parties together.’
One thing’s clear. Cameron needn’t alter his policy on Heathrow because no power on earth – not even a crack team of cash-in-hand builders – could lay a third runway before 2015. But Cameron’s real plan is to hope he can drop the pledge without it smashing too loudly.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.