There was praise for Fidel Castro – of all people – at PMQs today. That the
tribute came from a Tory MP must make this a unique event in the annals of parliament. Castro’s recent admission that Cuba’s state monopolies might profit from a little nibbling around
the edges gave Priti Patel, (Con, Witham), a bright idea. She asked the prime minister if the Marxist cigar-enthusiast might visit the TUC Conference to share his economic vision with the brothers.
The PM, who seemed calm, fresh and genially bullish today, caught the joke and ran with it. He offered his own tribute to the semi-retired dictator. ‘Even Comrade Castro is on the same planet
as the rest of us. Now we just need to get Labour and the unions across as well.’
The main event today was Harriet Harman’s valediction as understudy leader. She spent all six questions on one issue, the trafficking of prostitutes. A serious topic, no doubt, and one Harman
selected because it’s a flagship for the ‘ladies first’ agenda she has aggressively pursued for years. Though she went out fighting the sex-war her final exchanges with Dave were
tinged with affection. He praised her as ‘the most popular’ of the Labour leaders he has faced, (a sideswipe at Gordon which even Labour enjoyed), and Harman accepted his compliment
with a twinkle. ‘It’s just as well I’m not wearing a hoodie today.’ Dave opened his arms in a mock-hug. But beneath the cordiality he was preparing another attack. In his
closing adieu he reminded Harman that she must soon decide how to use her votes – yes votes – in the Labour leadership election. He explained that her various party affiliations
gurantee her no fewer than four votes, while her husband, the trade unionist and newly elected MP Jack Dromey, has three. Seven in one house! ‘Democracy’s a beautiful thing,’
smiled Dave. A sure blow neatly camouflaged with charm.
Speaker Bercow had an excellent session today. It was as if he wasn’t there. Several things seemed to have dawned on him, a) the PM shouldn’t be restricted to speaking exclusively about
government policy, b) a rowdy chamber is a function, not a dysfunction, of democracy, c) the debate is livelier the less he interrupts. Today he limited his calls for silence to one or two.
Eventually he’ll give up altogether.
The session caught fire towards the end when Labour old-stager Vernon Coaker was unwise enough to claim that the coalition had last week ‘sneaked out’ an ‘Equalities Impact
Assessment on the Building Schools for the Future programme’. This irked Dave. It irked him a lot. ‘One man’s “announcement”,’ he said derisively, ‘is
another man’s “sneaking out”’ He then hit his stride and delivered a savage attack on the building programme which managed to spend three years, and a quarter of a billion
pounds, doing absolutely squilch before a single brick was laid.
Turning from Mr Coaker to the programme’s author, Ed Balls, he listed the bureaucratic obstacles that the ‘building’ programme had imposed on anyone attempting to do any building.
‘I’m sorry it’s so long,’ he said to the Speaker, pausing for breath. ‘It was a disastrous programme,’ he yelled, ‘completely overspent, completely out of
control. And he’s responsible for it!’ Balls shrugged and shook his head robotically like a sent-off striker.
That apart, today’s session was unusually placid. Dave’s performance caught the eye. Effortlessly authoritative, he played every rhetorical instrument to perfection: compassionate,
serious, jokey, aggressive, strategic and practical – with a good dose of low political cunning too. Top stuff.