Let’s have a breather. It seemed like a truce had been tacitly declared between the party leaders at today’s PMQs. Instead of going on the offensive, Cameron and Miliband turned their solemn and unified gaze towards the sorrows of the eastern Mediterranean. Miliband asked about Syria. Cameron used the opportunity to take a pot-shot at the EU, still agonising over the arms embargo. Their sluggish and dithersome talks, he said, reminded him of the hesitation that caused needless bloodshed in Bosnia. Cameron wants the rebels to get tooled up pronto and to finish off the appalling Assad regime. He called it ‘hateful’ three times, just be sure.
Next the EU bank-raid in Cyprus. The immediate question of liquid cash produced this strange announcement. ‘A plane full of money’, said Cameron, ‘was on its way to Cyprus last night’. ‘Cripes’, muttered backbenchers, ‘has Asil Nadir skipped the country again?’ He also announced a temporary freeze on benefits and entitlements, presumably until the heist is over, and the gang has scarpered back to northern Europe with the loot.
Backbenchers are aware that Budget Day boosts the viewing figures and they duly set about grovelling to their constituents. Iain Stewart claimed that Milton Keynes had been voted ‘the best place to do business in the UK’. Richard Fuller trumped that. His Bedfordshire constituency, he said, was crammed with whizzkids starting up businesses at record-breaking speeds. ‘Where Bedfordshire leads,’ he thundered, sounding a little bit like Dr Goebbels, ‘the rest of the country follows.’ Tom Greatrex announced that he’d abolished slavery. Well, not him personally. A constituent of his. A dead constituent, as it turned out. David Livingstone who, it transpired, hadn’t terminated the scourge of human bondage single-handedly, but had done enough of the groundwork to earn himself a tomb Westminster Abbey.
Joan Ruddock gave a superb performance. She accused the PM of breaking his promises over Lewisham hospital. This world-class healing centre has been forced to close down vital services and to flog off huge chunks of land in order to bail out a bankrupt health authority just up the road. ‘Can anyone ever trust him on the NHS ever again?’ intoned Dame Joan. Her low, chocolatey voice trembled with barely suppressed rage. And all around her, Labour backbenchers cooed their support.
Just one snag. Her argument was crocked. The PFI wheeze, which is threatening her hospital with extinction, was brought in by her own party. Cameron asked if the opposition front bench would furnish an apology. Fat chance.
Brighton’s Green MP, Caroline Lucas, raised the issue of fuel poverty. It’s amazing she can find time to think up questions given how much else she has on her plate. Multi-tasking Lucas serves her parliamentary party as leader, chairwoman, equalities spokesperson, defence tsarina, fund-raiser-in-chief, policy strategist, Pilates instructor, spinach monitor, transcendental meditation guru and aroma-therapist. In short, she’s the only Green on the green benches. But she’s completely in tune with the eco-vibe down on the south coast. Like her constituents, she can easily work herself into a 1980s-style retro-tizzy about nuclear power. Today she had a brilliant statistic to throw at the PM. Brilliant in that it was highly convincing and completely untestable. Seven million people, she claimed, could be lifted out of fuel poverty for the cost of one nuclear power station.
Cameron wasn’t interested. He disagreed flatly with her nuke-o-phobia and said we need ‘a new fleet of nuclear power stations’. Sorry, Prime Minister? Ocean-going nuclear plants? That’s a new one. But nobody spotted this blunder. Let alone cared. It was that sort of session. Stingless and insubstantial. And Cameron, for one, will be mightily relieved.