The government has had a messy few weeks: that much is clear. And the latest mess, which is the row following the Panama Papers leaks, is still all over the press a week after the story broke. There are apparently more revelations to come.
But the government has also settled into a pattern of having multiple damaging rows which are played out in the media over days, with a series of ill-judged responses making matters worse, followed by an attempt to calm things down in the House of Commons on a Monday afternoon. Before recess, there was the medley of statements on the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith and the subsequent U-turn on benefit cuts, and yesterday we were treated to David Cameron’s statement addressing his tax arrangements, Sajid Javid trying to play catch-up on the steel crisis and David Lidington defending the government’s decision to spend £9.3 million on leaflets promoting the ‘Remain’ campaign in the EU referendum.
Ministers always end up trying to defend themselves in Parliament, but what seems different about this pattern is that whereas in previous years the Commons session might have been the most gut-wrenchingly terrifying bit of the whole row, it is now the opportunity for the minister in question to calm things down. And David Cameron made the most of that opportunity yesterday. The Prime Minister is still damaged by his handling of the revelations about his own financial arrangements. But he used his Commons statement in such a way that the session itself didn’t weaken him any further. This was mainly, as James said yesterday, because Labour is so weak at the moment that the Prime Minister can stand up at the Dispatch Box and face the benches opposite without his stomach turning with fear. But it is also because Tory MPs who wanted to beat the Prime Minister up verbally had clearly been locked in cupboards by the whips, with the most critical statements being dry observations from the likes of Andrew Tyrie about the danger of commenting on the tax affairs of others, such as Jimmy Carr.
That the Chamber can now be a forum for soothing rows might be cheering for the Prime Minister. But it is surely not a good thing at all for Parliament if it is becoming a less powerful part of the anatomy of a row.