A terrific PMQs today. This exchange had it all. Noise, laughter, rhetoric, anger, humiliation, jokes, and dramatic swings in the balance of advantage. We even had a sighting of that great Westminster rarity – a fact. Cameron’s first question elicited simple information. Would our troops start returning from Afghanistan in 2010 or 2011? Brown didn’t quite answer it but said that by 2011 the combined forces, including Afghans, would number 300,000, by which point the military burden ‘will start to change’. Cameron clarified. ‘That sounds more like 2011.’ Brown didn’t demur.
Turning to the economy Cameron asked why Britain is the last G20 country to come out of recession.Brown: We aren’t. What about Spain? Here Brown was wrong, (Spain isn’t in the G20), but Cameron didn’t spot the gaffe and he looked temporarily uneasy. Swelling with confidence, Brown turned up the pressure. ‘Either he has a policy which he wishes to put forward …’ (Huge laughter from Labour) ‘Or he’s simply talking down Britain.’ (Riotous Labour cheers.)
Undeterred Cameron berated Brown for creating the recession and expecting us to be ‘pathetically grateful’ for his handling of it. He rattled off a list of economies which are way ahead of us in groping their way back to growth. ‘What did the prime minister mean when he said we were leading the rest of the world out of recession?’ Brown felt chipper enough to ignore this embarrassing reminder. ‘We haven’t had a single policy from him,’ he said, and he offered a prepared flourish which delighted his backbenchers. ‘The voice may be that of the modern PR man. The mindset is that of the 1930s.’
When Cameron stood up again the house was so rowdy he had to tick off individual members of the Cabinet. ‘The Children’s Secretary is up to his old tricks again.’ Ed Balls shrugged guiltily. ‘You’d think he’d spend more time in his ultra marginal constituency,’ said Cameron. ‘But the more he meets people, the more likely we are to win it.’ That sounded nasty rather than funny. Cameron has an unfortunate vice as a comedian. Coldness. After reeling off a list of bogus Labour claims he called the PM a triple failure. Brown hit back with a low blow. ‘The more he talks the less he actually says.’ Labour loved that.
But by now Brown’s luck was running out. As soon as he mentioned inheritance tax Cameron knew just where to strike. ‘Only one person has made a specific pledge to reduce inheritance tax,’ he said referring to Labour’s plans to raise the threshold. Would Brown honour that pledge? A good question. A simple question. A question Brown himself had drawn into the debate. And Brown absolutely failed to answer it. He waffled, he bumbled, he swivelled, he paused – amidst growing howls of anger from the Conservatives – and after an extraordinarily clumsy piece of footwork he shuffled towards a prepared soundbite. ‘His inheritance tax policy has been cooked up on the playing fields of Eton!’ By now the house was in uproar. The Tories were outraged at Brown’s refusal to answer and the Labour benches, fired up with tribal hatred, were waving their order papers like groupies begging for autographs.
Then Nick Clegg had a go. Or rather he decided not to have a go. Instead he adopted a strain of collegiate internationalism. Chin up, shoulders square, his body language signaling, ‘I’m too good for all this’, he offered two questions which were mini-speeches in disguise. We mustn’t be over-reliant on President Karzai, he said, and he asked Brown to invite the regional powers to the London conference. Top marks for statesmanship. Nul points for holding the executive to account. What’s Nick up to here? Playing it long. That’s my guess. Very long. Ten more years running his micro-party and he’ll use his acquired grey hair and gravitas to win a Paddy Ashdown-style satrapy in some far-flung failed state.
The best of the backbench questions came from Ben Wallace. Prisoners with cancer regularly die in jail, he said pointedly. ‘Is it one rule for British inmates and one for Libyan mass murderers?’ Brown shrugged. ‘Scottish decision,’ he said in his Scottish accent. Brown’s class-war theme was picked up by Chris Ruane who predicted that the Tories would lead the economy into ‘a right old Eton mess.’ Bad pun. Bad tactics too. Blair would never have allowed this Bolshevist cat-calling. It leaves the target undamaged and it appeals to no one but the die-hard left. But the ploy is revealing. Labour is terrified it may lose its own heartlands.