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A day like no other

13 July 2011

3:20 PM

13 July 2011

3:20 PM

Was there ever a PMQs like this? The mood was like a revolutionary court. On the central
issue – the judge-led inquiry into the hacking affair – there was general agreement. But the doors of justice have been flung open at last and hosts of other crimes are rushing in to
receive an airing.

Ed Miliband arrived convinced that he had a killer question for Cameron. Assuming his favourite expression of indignant piety he asked about a specific warning given to Cameron’s chief of
staff last February that Andy Coulson, when News of the World editor, had hired an ex-convict to bribe the cops. The effect was feeble rather than fatal. ‘It wasn’t some secret stash of
information,’ said Cameron. ‘Almost all of it had been published in Guardian that February.’ The chief of staff, Cameron went on, hadn’t even passed the warning up the line.
Miliband seized on this a bit too eagerly. ‘The prime minister has just made a very important admission,’ he said ominously, like the class prefect announcing that he’s discovered
who broke the pencil sharpener.

What did Cameron propose to do about his errant chief of staff? The PM replied by raising the wider issue. ‘The public wants us to deal with this firestorm’ and ‘to clean the
stables’. This activated an even more pungent burst of rectitude from the Labour leader. ‘He just doesn’t get it,’ he said. This is not a great line to use. So he used it
again. He called on Cameron to apologise for his ‘catastrophic error’ in hiring Andy Coulson. This the PM swatted aside. ‘Where was the public inquiry over the last ten
years?’ he asked.

Ed Miliband, though impressive last week, seemed full of calculated hypocrisy today. This crisis isn’t doing him as much good as everyone claims. Too often he seems like an undertaker at a
road-smash earnestly mouthing his sorrow while counting corpses on his concealed fingers.

Backbench questions simmered with acrimony and ill-temper. Speaker Berkow, shrieking ‘Order! Order!’ at the disorder, veered between losing control of the house and losing control of
himself. Margaret Hodge stood up and accused the prime minister of blocking key information over the re-commissioning of aircraft carriers. Cameron’s pleasure at this question disconcerted
her. He’d be delighted, he said, to appear before her committee and reveal the delays, foul-ups and bunglings of Labour’s administrators when they ran the procurement budget.
‘Name the day!’ he yelled gleefully.

Tory MP Graham Stuart asked the prime minister to look into Labour’s involvement in Lord Ashcroft’s treatment by the Times. He used language which most of us assume is banned in
parliament, referring explicitly to ‘a criminal conspiracy at the highest levels of the last government.’ On a normal day that accusation would prompt calls for a withdrawal and receive
a big splash across tomorrow’s front pages. But such was the rowdiness of the session that it merely raised the decibel-level a couple of notches. Another Tory, Gavin Barwell, used coded
language to bring up Gordon Brown’s claim that he’d tried to establish a judicial inquiry into the blagging of his son’s medical records. Had Cameron ‘inherited any work on
that?’ Mr Barwell asked mildly. Translation: ‘Gordon lied’. The PM’s answer, ‘I inherited no work’, seems to affirm that Brown has indeed had been fibbing. And
about his own son’s medical condition too! Again, in normal circs, that would make headlines.

More was to come. And far deadlier. Tom Watson, in what my turn out to be the year’s most memorable utterance, asked the prime minister whether the phones of 9/11 victims had been hacked.
‘And would he raise the matter with his counterparts in the USA?’ That little dagger is aimed at the heart of Murdoch’s empire in America. That it may prove fatal is a prospect no
one would bet against. Not today anyway.

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