Low party interest parading as high political principle. That was the theme of today’s PMQs as the party leaders clashed over the scope and nature of the inquiry into the Libor scandal.
David Cameron’s pungent language was intended to reflect public anger at the banks. He spoke of ‘spivvy and illegal activity’ in the City, and he promised that crime in financial centres would be pursued as rigorously as crime on the streets.
One of the grandest of Tory grandees, Nicholas Soames, warned him that new regulatory mechanisms mustn’t be allowed to damage the City, ‘which remains a vital asset for our country.’
It was a line Ed Miliband might have used.
The Labour leader took a lyrical side-swipe at the ‘multi-million-pound bonus merry-go-round’. After that, he focused on a single issue. The Libor inquiry must be ‘independent, forensic and judge-led,’ he said.
Cameron disagreed. He wants a ‘swift and decisive’ Commons inquiry which will reach conclusions within four months. Legislation needs to be passed early next year, he argued. And he has a point. The languid pace and orotund manner of Lord Leveson have warned us against the slo-mo habits of senior jurists who speak English as if they’re drafting an inscription for their grandfather’s tombstone. We can imagine some disused Old Bailey big-wig being appointed to oversee the Libor inquisition. We might still be listening to his ‘opening statements’ at the time of the next Olympics.
But Ed Miliband is adamant. A judge must be appointed to run the show. He declared that speed must not compromise thoroughness. He’d even designed a user-friendly version of Leveson which could be folded out, like a camping table, to suit everyone’s inquisitional needs. The Libor Probe (Part 1) should report before Christmas on the specific issue of rate-rigging. And Libor Probe (Part 2) will examine the wider banking culture next year. How about that, he asked the PM?
Cameron said no. But he said No with an affable hint that he’d much rather say Yes. ‘I always listen to suggestions from colleagues and members opposite,’ he told us. But in that context, ‘listen’ refers to an act of perception carried out with ‘How Soon is Now’ plugged into his ears at full volume. He wasn’t interested.
Miliband taunted the PM and claimed he hadn’t ‘understood the depths of public concern’. Perhaps Cameron hasn’t understood the depths to which Miliband is prepared to descend in order to profit from the scandal. He repeated a Cameron quote given in 2008 to some City gathering. ‘As a free marketeer by conviction,’ Cameron had said, ‘I think the problem of the last decade has been too much regulation.’
That sounds criminally irresponsible today. Which is why Miliband used it. He savaged the prime minister for having ‘double standards’ and he portrayed the Conservatives as ‘a party bankrolled by the banks, and who stand up for wrong people.’
Miliband will make as much mischief as possible from this. He’ll argue that Cameron’s reluctance to appoint a judge is proof that the Tories are a gang of kleptocratic parasites who are conspiring with their City paymasters to evade a judicial grilling so that they can swan back the Square Mile and carry on robbing us to their hearts’ delight.
It’s clever. It’s unprincipled. And it has plenty of shelf-life too. A Commons inquiry seems the likelier outcome at this stage and that result will favour Miliband’s long-term strategy. Even now, he’s in front of a mirror practising his most wounded and self-righteous frown. And he’s about to spend the summer scurrying before the TV cameras at every opportunity to complain that the nasty Tories have conned the voters yet again and have handed their fat-cat backers a get-out-of-jail-free card.
It’s a useful line of attack and, of course, it’s complete cobblers. But so what? Ed’s ahead on this one.