Cameron was at pains to disguise it, but his impatience finally gave way at PMQs today.
What a contrast with the last 24 hours. The nemesis of Gaddafi, the terror of Tripoli, the champion of the rebels, the moral conscience of the West, the world’s latest and greatest
international tyrant-buster had to return to earth, and to the House of Commons, to deal with enterprise zones, disability benefits, carbon trading price structures and all the belly-aches of the
provincial grockles who put him where he is. What a chore.
Ed Miliband had a pop at him on police numbers. The Labour leader asked a clear and simple question. ‘Will there be fewer front-line police officers in future or not? Cameron’s reply
revealed that he’d read the briefing note a bit too carefully. ‘If all forces achieve the current best averages for visibility and availability there should be an average increase of
8,000,’ he said.
‘People won’t understand that answer,’ mocked Miliband. He quoted a senior copper from Lancashire who has claimed, ‘We cannot leave the front-line untouched’. And he
embarrassed Cameron with the tear-stricken evidence of a trusty ‘neighbourhood sergeant’ being forced to retire against his will. ‘So will there be fewer officers in
future,’ Milliband repeated, ‘Yes or no?’
Cameron’s reply – in the double negative – seemed deliberately designed to highlight the weakness of his position. ‘There is no reason why there shouldn’t be,’
he said, meaning that more beat officers are perfectly compatible with his police reforms. Yet, in its strange way, this feeble-seeming answer embodied his entire approach. ‘Not my decision,
squire.’ That’s his method. Empower the regions at the expense of the centre. To an electorate used to forceful edicts issuing from an all-powerful Whitehall, it looks extraordinarily
impolitic for a prime minister to duck the core question of police numbers and to forego the chance to fill the chamber with airy promises. But the appearance of weakness disguises a greater
strength, the power of trust in others.
Cameron couldn’t resist taking a low blow at Miliband. Referring to the Labour leader’s speech at the almost entirely peaceful riots last Saturday, Cameron asked, ‘Is there any
more ridiculous spectacle than the honourable gentleman marching against the cuts that his government caused?’ Then an added punchline. ‘Martin Luther King had a dream. It’s time
the opposition leader woke up.’ Not the most fluent gag, but we should remember it was a back-of-a-napkin job dashed off at this morning’s power breakfast with the joint chiefs of
Backbench questions covered any number of monumental trivialities, citizens advice bureau, prostate cancer, teaching subsidies and a vast new incinerator being plonked into the midst of an idyllic
market town in the Congleton constituency of Tory MP, Fiona Bruce. Mr Cameron handled it all with a brusque and steely competence. Only when Chris Williamson, (Lab, Derby N), attacked him directly
did he seem to come alive. Williamson alleged that at the general election Cameron had been chastised for making false claims over Williamson’s pledges on the winter fuel allowance.
‘Will he apologise to millions of pensioners and to me for his unfair statement?’ bellowed Wiliamson. Cameron, grinning with a strange and furious relish, returned fire. ‘I cannot
believe I accused him of anything because I had no idea who he was.’ He then rattled off a list of promises to pensioners that his government has kept. And the Tories roared their approval.
‘We did all those things,’ yelled Cameron at Williamson, ‘and yes he did mislead his voters at the election.’
Then the house returned to thumb-twiddling backbench questions. And it was as the prime minister examined the prospect of declaring the Potteries an enterprise zone that his patience suddenly
snapped. ‘I wish the shadow chancellor would occasionally SHUT UP and listen to the answer,’ he spat at Ed Balls who’d been gossiping noisily away on the front bench. ‘I may
be alone in finding him the most annoying person in politics but I’ve got a feeling the leader of opposition will one day agree with me.’ And with that, the terror of Tripoli swept from
the chamber and returned to his maps and his generals and his destiny.