Fascinating details dominated PMQs today. Instead of the usual custard pie-fight this was a game of chess. Things began with talk of downpours and sandbags. Both leaders were concerned that the sodden folk of Cumbria are receiving enough hot soup and blankets. The PM reminded us that he’d recently popped up there to squelch around in his wellies shaking people’s hands and nodding sympathetically.
Then Cameron pulled out a firecracker. He accused Brown of shambolic incompetence in allowing public money to flow into the hands of a front organization for Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist group whose constitution denounces non-Moslems in virulent terms. ‘They are combatants in the battlefield. Their blood is lawful, as is their property.’ One thing’s for sure. Islamic militants have a rattling good turn of phrase. Brown was stumped by this disclosure and Cameron played his hand shrewdly, postponing the most damning evidence to maximize Brown’s embarrassment. Brown fessed up that he wasn’t aware the group had received public money. Cameron offered facts. Cash from the Pathfinders Scheme, set up to specifically fight fundamentalism, has found its way into the extremists’ pockets. Brown floundered. ‘This will be looked into in detail,’ he said and then tried to reinforce it with, ‘everything he has said will be investigated in great detail.’
Cameron wondered why Hizb-ut Tahrir hadn’t been banned, given its psychotic rhetoric and its call for ‘Jews to be killed wherever they are found.’ Brown ascended into the statesmanlike register which he seems to find so becoming. He lectured Cameron on the perils of banning political groups and he praised the virtues of the law-abiding Moslem majority. ‘To proscribe an organization you need evidence. And he [Cameron] would not expect me to make an early decision. Advocacy of violence has to be clearly proven’, added Brown, ignoring the fact that it had just been proven, pretty clearly, by the man he was debating with. The PM’s pretence of omnipotence was rather betrayed by his inability to pronounce ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir’. I thought I heard him say ‘Its Oop Her Ear’ Let’s hope the poor chap isn’t going deaf as well as everything else.
Nick Clegg rose and fielded a disarmingly bland question about the terms of the Iraq Enquiry. The Enquiry is a Christmas bonus for the LibDems, a golden opportuniy to rediscover their lost vote-winners, Tony Blair and the Iraq war. For the next year, Clegg and Co will be busy reminding everyone that they’re super-tough on illegal invasions. Brown walked straight into Clegg’s trap and blithely announced that both the conduct of the enquiry and the publication of the report are a matter for Chilcott. No they aren’t, said Clegg, and he produced a protocol listing 9 pretexts for censoring information and granting each Whitehall department an individual right of veto. Clegg laid brutally into Brown. ‘Why did the prime minister do this? How are we to learn the truth if the Enquiry is being suffocated on Day One by his government’s shameful culture of secrecy?’ The PM replied with faint assurances. The only grounds for suppressing information are national security and international relations, he said. But these concepts are highly elastic. Clegg already has his season ticket for the Enquiry. He’ll return to this issue whenever possible.
From the backbenches Patrick Cormack tried to cheer everyone up. He rose to his feet, ruby red and brimming with malevolent bonhomie and asked ‘When did the prime minister first realise he was infallible?’ A good thrust but it might have worked better against the Papist Blair than the Presbyterian Brown who swatted it harmlessly aside.
The Labour member for Gloucester, Parmjit Dhanda fed the PM an easy question about Hizb ut-Tahrir. Banning political groups makes them more attractive to extremists, said Dhanda, ‘so we should listen to ACPO before we proscribe these organizations.’ My guess is that Dhanda hadn’t planned to ask this. It was improvised to help Brown out of a hole. The PM agreed with him warmly. ‘We mustn’t get into a position where our decisions act as recruiting sergeants for militants.’ He then capitalized on his newfound aura of competence and started waffling about enlarged budgets for anti-terror organizations and from there, with a horrible clanking of gears, he swung around and took a pop at Conservative plans to reform inheritance tax. ‘The beneficiaries of their policy will resemble the leader of the opposition’s Christmas card list.’ This was shameless. A question about Islamist murderers transformed into an attack on Tory tax reforms. Brown’s priorities couldn’t be clearer.