Earlier this week David Cameron threatened the Lib Dems with divorce. Today, two of their senior figures offered to kiss and make up. Sir Alan Beith and Sir Bob Russell, bearing their knighthoods like dented old battle-shields, made their overtures at PMQs. Each of these leathery old libertarians seems to have discovered his inner Tory.
Sir Alan went first. He invited Cameron to slap down rogue Anglicans who dare to criticise welfare reform.
‘There’s nothing moral about pouring more borrowed money into systems that trap people in poverty,’ he said.
Cameron accepted Sir Alan’s invitation for a waltz. Greeting him as ‘a ‘distinguished churchman himself’, the prime minister praised his stance and quoted George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who also supports the benefit squeeze.
‘Churches should be wary of the dangers of defending gargantuan welfare budgets.’
Then it was Sir Bob’s turn. The British army, he fears, has been reduced too rapidly. He urged Cameron to ‘recognise the folly’ of inflicting further cuts. His voice quivered alarmingly as he begged the PM, ‘for God’s sake’, to desist from sacking any more serving soldiers.
Strange days indeed. The Lib Dems are suddenly the party of military expansionism and hard-line Christianity. Are they about to stage a coup?
Cameron airily informed Sir Bob that the chief reductions had already been implemented. In any case, he went on, the whole sorry kerfuffle was entirely down to the ‘£38 billion black hole’ left by the previous government – a cosmic vacancy whose existence Labour strenuously denies.
Miliband barely troubled Cameron today. That should trouble the Labour party.
His colourless performance was all the more amazing given that he arrived at the House carrying deadly materials. His back-room elves have stumbled on a killer-fact about flood defence spending:
Cameron has lied.
Ever since the waters rose, the PM has repeatedly said that the £2.4 billion outlay on river defences represents ‘more’ than the total invested during the previous four years. He’s wrong. The sum is higher only if you ignore inflation and payments from other agencies.
Cameron is a fraud. He’s been deceiving flood victims even as their best oak furniture floated along the Thames estuary and towards the North Sea. A pretty serious blunder, you’d have thought. But Miliband made it look like a minor faux pas. His writers had pre-wrapped the accusation in a succinct and inflammatory soundbite – ‘his figures are phoney and he knows it’ – but Miliband delivered this potent line and then changed the subject immediately. Cameron had no counter-argument other than to repeat his questionable statistics. And Miliband let him stroll away from danger.
The Labour leader instead tangled himself in a quibble about the thousand varieties of climate change scepticism. Owen Paterson, a doubter, once told someone that, ‘the climate has been changing for centuries.’ Was Cameron embarrassed by such equivocation within the cabinet?
This made Miliband look desperate and out of touch. He cannot really believe that exposing an ecological fence-sitter could threaten the government. No one in the country, apart from the Green Party’s Heretic Hunter-Killer Squad, could care less about individual levels of loyalty to the eco-ideal.
Cameron responded by reeling off a shopping list of the government’s eco-triumphs. Miliband was stumped for a reply. On this form, he could barely peel a carrot in the chamber let alone hold Cameron to account.
Labour is in dire need of a calamity to cling to – but growth is rising and the rivers are falling. Once again, Miliband is hobbled by good news.