A bogeyman is born. In future decades parents may scare their children with the prospect of being eaten up by Len McCluskey, thanks to David Cameron name-checking him on an epic scale. Until today most of the British public would have had trouble picking the general secretary of the inaptly named (given the headaches it has generated for Ed Miliband) Unite trade union in a line up. Today he’s a celebrity villain – the JR Ewing of the Labour movement!
Since the union is having an unseemly row with the Labour Party over allegations that it tried to rig the selection of a candidate for the party in Falkirk, the PM was always likely to have a go.
What wasn’t expected was that he would talk of little else. But the Tories, baying at every mention like a pantomime audience when the wicked sorcerer does his stuff in Aladdin, lapped it up.
Miliband asked a pretty reasonable question about the lack of primary school places. “As ever, his questions are written by Len McCluskey of Unite,” the PM declared. Actually he was speaking for parents, Miliband said, but “it was the Prime Minister who “had dinners for donors in Downing Street… and… brought Andy Coulson into the heart of Downing Street.” “The Right Hon. Gentleman goes up and down the country speaking for Len McCluskey,” retorted Cameron.
And this was only the start. At one point in the pandemonium, Cameron, looking in the general direction of Ed Balls, said: “I know you are paid to shout by Unite, but calm down a bit.” This cast the Shadow Chancellor in an interesting new light, suggesting he is at heart a shy, introverted type seduced only by the McCluskey shilling, paid at piecework rates, into making the sedentary interruptions of which he has become a notorious master.
At times Cameron’s preoccupation was borderline Tourette’s syndrome. He told Stephen Timms, who asked a blameless question on food banks: “I am sure that the Right Hon. Gentleman, as a member of Unite, will want to look very carefully at his own constituency Labour party. Who knows how many people it has bought and put on the register?” You felt that he missed a trick by not adding to his answer to the Tory backbencher, Anne McIntosh, on the Common Agricultural Policy “And I’ll tell you who’s never been on a farm, that Len McCluskey, the scouse git!”
Generally, you felt this might be a foretaste of the coming election. Answering a question about RBS from Labour’s Geoffrey Robinson, he began: “What I would say to the Hon. Gentleman, who I know has great experience of lending money...”
This referred to the 15-year-old story of a loan to Peter Mandelson, a point Cameron did not make, maybe because Lord M has been almost as critical of McCluskey as he has.
Hardly prime ministerial. But at least it all gave his backbenchers a much-needed enemy they can, well, Unite over.