The choppers, and the whoppers, were flying at Westminster today. David Cameron invited the prime minister to try a spot of accountability at PMQs. Would he admit that he scrimped on transport aircraft in Helmand? Brown, with breathtaking cheek and not a little rhetorical dexterity, flipped the question upside down. ‘I do not accept that our commanding officers gave the wrong advice,’ he said and insisted that he never sent underequipped troops into battle.
He clarified this with a smokescreen. ‘I take full responsibilitiy but I also take the advice of our commanding officers.’ Here was the morality of the restaurant freeloader, accepting the food but passing the bill down the table. Cameron leapt on it. ‘That answer sums up this premiership. He always blames somebody else.’
Cameron showed lots of fire today and Brown hoisted his habitual front of stony self-justification. They’ve fought this bout too many times and they quickly manouevred themselves into the familiar stalemate. Cameron lampooned Brown for his lack of character and competence while Brown, perhaps prematurely nostalgic for the tactics of yesterday, trotted out all his tiredest quotes. Extra jobs, more investment, tax credits, the winter fuel allowance. His soundbites on OAPs are now so old they’re eligible to have their pensions raided.
Nick Clegg got up and repeated last week’s unusually vitriolic performance. In normal times the LibDems want to be ‘all things to all fools’ but during this campaign they’ve decided that a policy of total ambivalence means attacking both main parties with equal hysteria. Clegg unwound a witchy index finger and flexed it dangerously. He pointed at Cameron – ‘he!’ – then he pointed at Brown – ‘and he!’ he said, ‘are trying to fool people that they’re serious about policital reform.’ This must have looked good in the mirror. In the House it looked absurd and contrived. All around him MPs began a Mexico wave of phonetic mimicry. Hee! Hee!, they wheedled. Hee! Hee! It was one of those sublime moments when the House at its silliest is also the House at its best. Clegg struggled to make himself heard over the hee-hees as he furiously insisted that the main parties’ vested interests were blocking parliamentary reform. This ‘angry brigade’ strategy is hard to fathom. Vituperation today. Coalition tomorrow. And Clegg personally got so worked up that he began to look like Tintin having a panic attack. In reply Brown assigned blame for the botched reform to Lord Ashcroft. He uttered the peer’s name, with oratorical precision, as the final beat of a short and emphatic sentence. Evidently he imagines that ‘Lord Ascroft’ carries as much chilling potency as ‘Mosley’ or ‘Hitler’ but I doubt if a fifth of voters have heard of him.
Mr Bercow had a busy day, trampolining up and down in his big red chair, calling for noisy MPs to calm down. It’s never clear whether he wants to quieten the house because he likes the sound of silence or because he likes the sound his own voice breaking it. Anyway, he had a gag waiting to be aired. Rowdy members, he advised, shouldn’t shout themselves hoarse at the start of the campaign but save their voices for the voters. To his credit he used the same joke three times. Perhaps his constituents will appreciate his thrift.
From the backbenches Stephen Hammond had fun mocking Brown for pretending to meet ordinary people yesterday whilst taking care to be photographed on the doorsteps of staunch Labour supporters. ‘Does he plan to spend the whole campaign moving from safe house to safe house?’
The mood of the chamber was frivolous and sentimental today. But at the close Bernard Jenkin threw in a potentially deadly grenade. He unveiled a drastic plan to reduce helicopter numbers so that by 2020 the army will have fewer than 350, ‘a cut of 42 percent’. The PM looked flustered and fired off a fistful of facts and statistics, wrapping them up in a superior and rather illogical sneer. ‘I’m sorry he takes that view,’ he said as if his morality had been impugned. Brownwatchers will recognise this ruse. He pours out stats when he doesn’t have a better weapon – like the truth – in his arsenal. Jenkin may be onto something here. But hopefully Gordon won’t get another chance to lie his way out of it.