Armistice Day suits Brown down to the ground. When everyone is obliged wear funeral-director garb, his grey hair and sombre jowls fit the mood perfectly while Dave’s polished and youthful glow looks a trifle out of place. Gordon performed confidently at PMQs today. So did Dave, as it happens, but the skirmish came to nothing because neither was prepared to fight on the ground chosen by the other.
Dave led on the youth unemployment figures. He wanted Brown to admit that his promise ‘to abolish youth unemployment’ had failed. Brown ignored this and took comfort from the thought that without Labour’s policies even more youngsters would be out of work. Dave went into sci-fi mode and told the PM he was ‘living in a parallel universe.’
He reminded Brown that our youth unemployment is far worse than Germany’s or France’s. Ah, yes, said the PM, but it’s not nearly as bad as Ireland’s. This got us nowhere. But the Labour benches were enjoying it, particularly when Brown announced that 250,000 of newly unemployed youngsters were ‘full-time students looking for part-time work.’ That peculiar statistic took Dave by surprise. (And it may bear further investigation.)
In reply, Dave rattled off a list of recession-busting Labour policies that have come to nothing. The ‘asset backed securities guarantee’ has been virtually unused, he said, and ‘the mortgage rescue scheme has helped just 16 families.’ The PM swatted that aside, almost elegantly, by stating that the scheme was only an emergency measure. It hadn’t been used because of his magnificent stewardship of the economy had rendered it unnecessary.
For a moment, Brown seemed to have the upper hand and the Speaker twice had to tell the jeering Labour backbenchers to button it. The encounter expired with Dave asking to Gordon to admit he’s planning ‘cuts not investment’, while Gordon replied in hooligan fashion. ‘Wrong on this, wrong on that’ he yelled and attached a list of policies the Tories have been associated with.
This was a noisy and perfectly unenlightening draw. Nick Clegg stood up and flickered briefly. Changes to housing allowance rules will cut the incomes of 300,000 impoverished tenants, he told us. He seemed convinced he had a poisonous new fiscal muddle on his hands. Brown played it predictably. ‘This government has done more than any other to take people out of poverty,’ he waffled. Then he used his other favourite stat-tactic – questioning the figures. Clegg bounced back up, hopping mad. ‘These are his own figures!’ he shrieked. ‘It took him months to do the right thing on the 10p tax rate.’ And he urged the PM to prevent the changes from being implemented. Brown’s put-down killed the question off. ‘These are proposals for consultation and no decision has been made.’ That shut Clegg up all right. But why didn’t Brown mention it straight away? The issue may return next week.
The best backbench contribution came from Gerald Howarth, the member for Aldershot. He’d recently spoken to one of the servicemen killed last week. He read out an email from a comrade of the fallen man who brought heartening news from the front. ‘We are winning in the job we are doing out here.’ Howarth urged the Prime Minister to work harder at communicating this positive message. Unfortunately the PM took this as a cue to repeat his personal feelings, his pride, his admiration for the soldiers’ courage and so on. That’s not quite it. We’ve had enough of the Gordon’s inner thoughts lately. Instead we want some strategic clarity, we want to hear what progress is being made and if there are victories being won we want them celebrated. Loudly.