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A well fought fight

9 February 2011

3:18 PM

9 February 2011

3:18 PM

Plenty of personality at today’s PMQs. Not much policy. Miliband opened with one
of his stiletto questions. Short sharp and deadly. ‘How’s his Big Society going?’ he asked the prime minister. Potentially this is tricky ground for Cameron and he rose to a
barrage of Labour jeers. At least he’s had time to rehearse his defence. ‘Devolving power to local authorities was in the opposition manifesto and in ours and in the LibDems’
…Every member of the House of Commons backs what we’re talking about,’ he said cheerily.

A robust counter-attack. Pose as an optimistic philosopher-king and leave Ed Miliband looking like a whining defeatist. Miliband duly obliged and unfurled a readymade quote from some doom-mongering
fiasco-seeking crisis-lover who claimed that the coalition’s policies are ‘destroying volunteer armies’ across the country. Cameron surprised everyone with his reply. Instead of
oratory he produced cash. An extra £200m would be found from the new bank levies, he said, and every penny would go to voluntary organisations. The Tories were almost breaking into song as
their leader wrote out the cheque in front of their eyes and slotted it into the charity-box.

Taken by surprise Miliband changed tack and brought up Surestart and the Daycare Trust. Both men then indulged in a spot of funding ping-pong. Billions of pounds were batted to and fro across the
chamber. Neither of them scored. Neither of them blundered. But when Miliband introduced library closures Cameron struggled all of a sudden. ‘Four libraries are under threat in his own
constituency,’ said Miliband. Cameron began to flannel dangerously and disingenuously. ‘We all know that those libraries which will succeed are the ones that wake up to the world of the
new technology.’ To suggest that some kind of freemarket Darwinism should overtake cherished public services is a reckless move. Cameron was lucky Miliband made so little of it. ‘Only
the prime minister would blame the libraries themselves for closing,’ he said. And with a merry chortle rising from his back benchers he seemed satisfied his work was done.

Miliband came across as excessively smug and pleased with himself today while Cameron several times gave way to those angry power-surges which make him look like a hot-headed student Trot.
Exasperated with Miliband’s repeated digs at his beloved Big Society he turned crimson and accused him of ‘sniping and jumping on bandwaggons.’

His opponent offered condescending advice. ‘He shouldn’t get so angry it’ll cloud his judgment.’ Then he added, ‘He’s not the first prime minister I’ve
said that to.’ A strange self-aggrandising note. Suddenly Miliband sounded like John Major: the neglected non-entity promoted beyond his talents.

Miliband performed better than usual today but it’s still all but impossible to imagine this gurgling bundle of sanctimonious nerdiness waddling up to the palace to accept Her Majesty’s
invitation. Cameron had a reasonable outing despite the strops and outbursts. He might try counting to ten occasionally. It’s the number of his house. But he was by no means the angriest unit
in the chamber. That award goes to Jack-in-the-box Bercow who popped up three times, in a crescendo of irascibility, to out-shout the entire gathering. ‘The voters are sick and tired of this
sort of thing!’ he howled. ‘We must consider what the public thinks of this sort of behavior!’ He’s been practising these lines, one might surmise, on his dust-sheeted wife.

The Big Society took a few more knocks today. It may be a fine idea but it’ll never succeed as an effort of political vision. The mistake is to give it a corporate identity and to send its
suckered tentacles creeping across every cranny and corridor of Whitehall. A protestant philosophy of self-reliance and neighbourliness belongs in the heads and hearths of the citizens not in the
structures of government. Calling it ‘the Big Society’ is a typical Big State thing to do.

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