Today we saw just how tricky the game can be for opposition leaders. The government sets the parliamentary agenda and holds the keys to the war-chest. Cameron’s attempts to upset the PM looked diffuse and repetitive. On Afghanistan he offered support. On Kelly he flannelled about some footling detail of parliamentary timing. And on ministerial pay he drew attention to his gravest difficulty, namely that the pre-budget report was coming up next. Brown never looked in difficulty and he cruised easily towards his Six O’Clock sound-bite. ‘The opposition leader has lost the art of communication but not alas the gift of speech.’ A poor day for Dave.
Nick Clegg did much better. Gosh he’s an angry beggar isn’t he? He looks like a three-year old deprived of his choccie bickies. Poverty was the issue getting him red in the face today. Pensioners are getting poorer. Youngsters are getting poorer. And babies born into the cradle of deprivation have a life expectancy 14 years shorter than babies with gold bars on their cots. ‘Talking about fairness,’ fumed Clegg, ‘is offensive to the millions of people who’ve been let down by Labour.’ Brown recited an index of his marvellous achievements and offered an improvised flourish lifted from statistical fairyland. ‘Poverty trebled under the Tories.’ Yes, he actually said that. This infuriated Clegg further. ‘Once again, I don’t get an answer, I get a list. Here’s a list.’ And he rattled off a set of bullet-points highlighting Labour’s ‘failure on fairness.’ He didn’t do any serious damage but at least Clegg looks like he means business.
The Labour backbenches then gave a superb display of co-ordinated tactics. Speaker after speaker raised an issue calculated to embarrass the Tories. Surestart, healthcare, family tax credits and green energy. Brown responded with ready-made gags. On renewables he said the Tories were ‘all wind and no turbine.’ And Labour celebrated when their old friend Freddy the Fox popped up in the chamber. ‘I can’t believe,’ said the prime minister, ‘that the Tories are preparing to fight a general election on this issue.’ Perhaps he can’t believe it because it’s not true. ‘A quango to run fox-hunting is the only job creation scheme they’ve got.’
One Tory alone unsettled the PM. John Hayes unleashed Brown’s favourite weapon against him, the killer stat. ‘The government will miss its targets for level three technical skills,’ said Hayes while the Tories went ‘oooh, oooh!’ in wendyhouse mode. ‘Will the prime minister concede that fewer young people are beginning level three apprenticeships than 10 years ago?’ Concede that? No way. Instead he answered a different question. ‘There are more apprenticeships this year than last year.’ Well it wouldn’t be PMQs without Brown blatantly ducking at least one query. He then pretended that the real issue was the Tories’ opposition to his spending plans. Feeble but effective. Brown was in his comfort zone today and no one managed to dislodge him.