What a strange PMQs. The house seemed half empty. The tug of elsewhere dominated proceedings. Richard Drax asked the prime minister if ‘prospective members of parliament’ should ever speak in support of terrorism.
David Cameron took this cue to rebuke John O’Farrell. Labour’s candidate at Eastleigh has admitted to feeling ‘a surge of excitement’ when he learned that the IRA had nearly assassinated Mrs Thatcher in the Brighton bomb. Cameron asked Ed Miliband to condemn his candidate. Miliband refused.
‘If he wants me to answer questions I’ll swap places any time.’
Miliband’s aim today was to turn the triple-A downgrade into a government-breaking issue. It didn’t work. A well-rehearsed Cameron threw every argument back at him.
‘If there’s a problem with excessive borrowing, why is it Labour’s policy to borrow more?’
Miliband had one of those days. He fluffed several lines. At times he sounded like a poorly sequenced robot. And he blundered into a humiliation entirely of his own making. The prime minister quoted a New Statesman article claiming that ‘Miliband’s critique of the government will never win back public trust.’
Miliband was amazed to hear Cameron relying on the authority of a magazine which is as old as Labour itself. But his wording was ill-judged.
‘He’s scraping the barrel,’ he told the prime minister, ‘by quoting the New Statesman.’
Swift and brutal came Cameron’s retaliation. ‘He says “scraping the barrel.” The New Statesman was the only paper to endorse his leadership.’
The Tories crowed. Labour squirmed. Miliband, now stumbling like a concussed middleweight, could barely find breath for his closing attack. ‘This downgraded government,’ he huffed. ‘This downgraded prime minister.’
Cameron, by contrast, was skipping to and fro like Rumpelstiltskin when he rattled off this alliterative screed about Labour. ‘They sold the gold, bust the banks and racked up the deficit. And never said sorry for any of it.’
Edward Leigh, in by-election mode, reminded the House that only a Tory vote would guarantee an in-out EU referendum after 2015. Cameron urged all Tories to help Maria Hutchings in her Eastleigh campaign.
The Hampshire constituency is already heaving with supporters from every party. Labour are there to win the unwinnable. Lib Dems are there to defend the indefensible. And Tories are there to chuck mud at the unmissable. Nick Clegg and Co. offer a very juicy target at the moment. Tuition-fee traitors, traffic-offence dodgers, course-of-justice perverters, and now, for good measure, activist-gropers. Too good an opportunity to pass up.
And the bilious by-election mood infected all parts of the House. Every mention of Maria Hutchings prompted calls of ‘Sarah Palin’ from Chris Bryant. He was brusquely asked to stop by the Speaker. Cameron agreed. He turned directly to Mr Bercow. ‘If you have any luck getting the honourable member for Rhondda to shut up I’d like to know how it’s done.’
Bercow fumed at this chummy mode of address – ‘you!’ He glared at the prime minister. ‘I won’t need him to phone me. I’ll phone him.’
‘Ooh. Ooh-oooh!’ called the Tories at this hoity-toity answer.
Bercow’s attempts to protect his dignity always seem to sabotage it. Emboldened by this bungle, Cameron then ripped up the PMQs rule book. Instead of restricting himself to government business, he took another swipe at O’Farrell. The Eastleigh hopeful isn’t just an IRA fan, he’s an Argie lover as well. Referring to the Falklands, he once mused that, ‘Great Britain should lose a war for the sake of Great Britain.’
Tories fell into ecstasies of disapproval. Even if Eastleigh is lost, the adrenalin-surge will have fortified their spirits. And the Lib Dems, will take little pleasure from victory in such bruising circumstances. Throughout the session Nick Clegg slumped against his seat like a collapsed umbrella. His bland, handsome features looked positively nauseous.
Perhaps his face could do with a touch-up.