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PMQs sketch: Miliband nutmegs Cameron, while the Speaker seemed preoccupied

5 February 2014

4:28 PM

5 February 2014

4:28 PM

That should have been a tap-in. London is currently crippled by a Tube strike thanks to the noted beach enthusiast, Bob Crow, and his high-earning chums at the RMT. So David Cameron had a superb chance to tip a bucket of manure over Ed Miliband’s head. The political connections are self-evident. Red Ed, union militancy, London throttled, all Labour’s fault.

But Cameron was nutmegged by Miliband’s tactics. Ignoring the strike, the Labour leader asked about the newly formed inland sea which used to be known as the West Country. He accused the government of a slow, tight-fisted and shambolic response.

Cameron assumed the facial expression of pumped-up severity that he usually reserves for Syria. He reeled off a list of statistics intended to give the impression that he wields personal authority over the sun, the wind and the tides. As he gave these answers, one sensed him asking himself if he dared to introduce the Underground strike as a related theme. Flood chaos. Tube chaos. Stranded farmers. Stranded Londoners. An act of God. An act of Bob. In the end he ducked the opportunity and treated the swamped south-west in a sombre and workmanlike manner. Investment in flood defences, he insisted, is going up. No, said Miliband, it’s going down. Up, said Cameron. Down, said Miliband.

Just like the water levels.

Miliband moved to a fresh topic and Cameron braced himself to pounce. But he ran into an ambush. Miliband reminded us of an unwise Cameron boast.

‘He said he was going was going to lead the way on women‘s equality. How’s that going in the Conservative party?’

Cameron scrambled for the relevant figures. The Tories had boosted their tally of female MPs from 17 to 48. They’d cut taxes for 11 million female workers. And their aid programmes were geared towards women’s rights. All irrelevant, as it turned out. Miliband then sprang his trap.

‘A picture says more than a thousand words,’ he said. He levelled a finger at the Treasury bench and its uniform array of men in suits. Labour’s front row, by contrast, had been cunningly pre-loaded with female talent. There they sat, in their blouses and pashminas, happily gloating at the male-dominated government. It was vivid testimony that Labour modernises while the Conservatives stagnate.

He runs his government like an old boys’ network, scoffed Miliband.

Ah but, said Cameron, at least we had a woman prime minister. Unlike you.

Ah but, replied Miliband, at least she won elections. Unlike you.

It was a great piece of theatre. And it killed the Tube strike as a political weapon.

The Speaker gave one of his strangest performances ever today. There were the usual putdowns cribbed from Billy Bunter stories but his rhetoric was tinged with awkwardness and malice. He called a Labour backbencher, ‘an incorrigible delinquent.’ He named the Education Secretary and cracked a long-winded joke about antiquated class-room punishments.

‘Mr Gove,’ he scolded from his chair. ‘You really are a very over-excitable individual. You need to write out a thousand times, I will behave myself at prime ministers questions.’

And he admonished the House with this barmy warning. ‘We must calm ourselves. Many hours of the day remain. Don’t destroy your systems by exploding.’

Systems? Exploding? Poor Berc. Something’s on his mind.

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