It’s a new Prime Minister’s Questions concept – the photographic ambush. Parliamentary party management gurus will discuss for years whether Tory whips should have seen it coming, given that the brutal deselection of the likeably gutsy MP Anne McIntosh had prompted a “Do the Conservatives have a problem with women?” media-fest.
For the Cabinet front bench line-up was horribly, monolithically, (and by the time it was apparent that the Labour one opposite was packed out with Yvette, Angela, Rachel, Margaret, Harriet, Rosie) irreparably male. Where the hell, you imagined the PM thinking, was Maria and the Theresas? Or Justine?
“A picture tells a thousand words,” declared Ed Miliband, who had by now shed the last vestige of his earnest new non-belligerent approach. “Look at the all-male front bench ranged before us!” Rosie Winterton and Angela Eagle pointed busily up and down the Cabinet ranks, arms and index fingers swinging menacingly from side to side.
While the visual harm had been inflicted, David Cameron gamely played the only available card by pointing out that “this party is proud of the fact that we had a woman Prime Minister”. This went down well with his MPs (many of whom secretly wish she was still standing in his place). All the more so when he added, in a reference to the brief caretaker reigns of Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman: “To be fair to the Labour Party, it has had some interim leaders who have been women, but it has a habit of replacing them with totally ineffective men.”
A goodish gag, if odd since it lumped serial election-winner Tony Blair – and to an extent a Cameron-Osborne model – in with Miliband. But generals up against it tend not to be fussed about collateral damage.
By this time the uproar was so all-engulfing that Speaker John Bercow unusually singled out a Cabinet minister who, by co-incidence, had provoked a backlash in recent days by sacking a woman, Baroness Morgan. “Mr Gove, you really are a very over-excitable individual. You need to write out 1,000 times ‘I will behave myself at Prime Minister’s questions’.”
This all helped to overshadow the fact that Miliband declined Cameron’s invitation to condemn the London tube strike. Somewhat surprisingly, since he said on Tuesday that the strike should “not be going ahead” and gave an even-handed plea for negotiations (and he owes nothing to Bob Crow after his disafilliation of the RMT from Labour).
But maybe he was thinking of an equally surprising (RMT-commissioned) opinion poll suggesting a majority of Tube users sympathised with the stoppage. This would be a novel reason for a politician to keep mum about a strike. But in these uncertain times, anything is possible.