Does Cameron fluff PMQs on purpose? Some theorists say he lets Brown off the hook in order to keep the weakling in his job. I don’t buy that. A politician’s natural instinct makes him want to win every session, every question. But Brown sometimes sneaks through intact because Dave rarely varies his tactics. He doesn’t prepare ambushes. He never ponders what Brown wants to hear least.
Today the Tories had a great opportunity. Brown’s recent flip-flop over the training of TA soldiers for Afghanistan was inspired, in part, by Dave himself, who raised the issue a fortnight ago. But Dave’s tone was wrong. He thought he was the point – not the soldiers. He spent time bigging up his part in the U-turn rather than giving thanks that troops are now going to war adequately trained. It was clear what Dave would do next. He’d link this U-turn to Brown’s other major policy somersault this week, his decision to promote as EU president the very man he ousted from Number 10. This is a historic reversal. Not since 1994 has Brown given Blair his support for anything. A feast of jokes and ironic asides were promised. But Dave ducked it. He wouldn’t touch the President Blair business, not even with a raised eyebrow or a half-smile.
Europe is Dave’s unexploded bomb. He won’t go near it for fear it may blow his face off. Instead he revived a question Brown dealt with more than a year ago. ‘Why did the prime minister promise to end boom and bust?’ When I say Brown ‘dealt with’ it I don’t mean he answered it. He just buried it under a pyramid of rubble and verbage and today he repeated this blunt but effective tactic. Dave might have foreseen that at his briefing session this morning. He might have foreseen it 12 months ago. Sure enough, having been schooled in evasion by long practice, Brown easily dodged the issue.
These two have spent too much time getting used to each other’s feints and shimmies. With his final queston, Cameron seemed to have photocopied his opponent’s tactics and learned them by heart. He yelled that Brown was ‘wrong’ on the recession, ‘wrong’on the recovery, ‘wrong’ on this, ‘wrong’ on that. OK, Dave. Got it. He’s wrong. Brown replied with more of the same, but noiser and dronier. Bellowing at pneumatic-drill volume he attached the word ‘wrong’ to a list of policies as long as the M4.
This was hardly inspiring but the Labour benches are so demoralised that any show of vigour from their leader hits their bloodstream like a triple brandy. ‘More,’ they bayed at the opposition leader. ‘More! more!’ They haven’t done that since IDS was in charge. Cameron sat there looking red and cross, having thoroughly cheered up the Labour party.
Clegg had a go with a trick question. How would Brown assess his green record after a decade in office? Brown duly gave himself a 5-star rating and looked forward to his Copenhagen jaunt where he intends to collect more plaudits from around the world. Oh no, you don’t, said Clegg, and reeled off a list of wicked Labour policies that are threatening to blacken the skies, kill our bunny rabbits and menace the very basis of life on earth. This was too easy for Brown. ‘I think he wrote his second question before he’d heard my answer to his first,’ smiled the PM.
The prospect of a climate-panic jamboree always brings out Brown’s sense of adventurous smugness. He’s like a gap year teenager trotting round the globe in pursuit of some altruistic fantasy while those at home quietly pay the bills. By the end he was going at it like a banned driver, veering wildly all over the place, almost singing. He accused the Tories of opposing wind-turbines. What? Everyone knows Dave’s got a windmill bolted to his chimney-pot. How did Brown get away with that? Because weak and unimaginative Tory tactics had temporarily given the PM a euphoric illusion of power.