Cameron was scarcely trying at PMQs today. Show up, look a bit cross, slip in a joke or two, then sit down and wait for the Budget. That was his plan. When the PM offered his congratulations on BabyCam, the opposition leader quoted a text he’d received – ‘How do you find time for these things?’ Making this wisecrack seemed more important to him than attacking the PM.
His tactics were odd, out of touch, retrospective. He asked about Brown’s attempts to conceal the evidence that, as chancellor, he flogged the nation’s gold too cheaply and blew vast sums in potential profits. Brown’s bungling over the bullion billions should be a promising issue. It encapsulates Brown’s obsessive and butter-fingered approach to finance but it’s not a headline-grabber. It doesn’t resonate. You don’t see crowds at the gates of Downing Street chanting, ‘Where are the revenues you failed to generate during the unparalleled bull-market in precious metals since 2000?’
Cameron’s next thrust was on the pensions raid. Brown deflected this with a whopper so mountainous it had snow on top of it. ‘We made the right decision to protect British pensioners,’ he said and then gave Lord Ashcroft an irrelevant name-check. The leaders spend the rest of their dialogue in ceremonial abuse. Cameron called the cabinet, ‘a useless bunch of ministers’ and Brown said Cameron was ‘wrong’ seven times. A personal best.
Not an illuminating exchange. Nick Clegg decided that last week’s plague-on-both-your-houses routine was such a hit that he should revive it. He’s been practising in the bathroom, possibly with two hair-dryers turned on to replicate the bellowing of his political enemies who surround him in the house. He named a LibDem proposition for parliamentary reform and shouted, ‘They both blocked us.’ He named another. ‘They both blocked us.’ He did it a third time. ‘They both blocked us. They both blocked reform.’ The king-maker is certainly a phrase-maker. And his muscular rhetoric might have been effective if it hadn’t been for the howls of ‘Michael Brown’ – a dodgy LibDem donor – coming from all sides. Clegg was virtually inaudible.
The prime minister had an easy ride today. He was greatly helped by a well-drilled display from his backbenches. Question after question gave Brown a chance to boast about everything he’s achieved with tax-payers’ money. This was highly boring, extraordinarily predictable but admirable in its way. The political equivalent of co-ordinated clog-dancing on the leader’s birthday.
Mark Pritchard, who appears to be a Conservative, got so swept up in PM-worship that he joined in by accident. Quite needlessly he asked Brown to assure as that ‘no MP caught up in the lobbygate scandal will be given a peerage.’ Brown was laughing even before he stood up. ‘Talk about an own-goal,’ he said and turned the question in a predictable direction. ‘Future standards will be a lot higher than those applied to Lord Ashcroft.’
Brown still wants to fight the election on the issues of the past. Cameron made a modest attempt at copying him today. He ought to conclude that the experiment wasn’t a success.