Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Fawning in the Commons, doghouse at home


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Indy Politics

In an admittedly competitive field, the award for the most unctuous Commons question on the Commonwealth Summit should probably go to the Tory backbencher Michael Ellis.

Did David Cameron know he had been described “in the Australian press as a defender of democratic ideals and a confident international statesman?”

And hadn’t he been right to go, not least because the “concomitant publicity” secured by his visit to Jaffna had so ably highlighted human rights issues in Sri Lanka? Since Cameron had been saying exactly that, throughout the previous 53 minutes of exchanges, this was not exactly challenging.

Ellis might as well have asked whether “my Right Honourable friend agrees with himself?” But Cameron’s answer to the first question was both self-deprecating and intriguing. He had been called many things in the past week, and such views “are not all necessarily shared widely in the Cameron household”.

We wondered wildly whether Samantha had joined Labour in arguing on political grounds against her husband going, as she is said to have stiffened his resolve over Syria. But no, it was probably that she needed some help with the shopping.

So this left Miliband somewhat out on his own. It had all started consensually with the Labour leader congratulating the Government on earmarking £50m in aid to the typhoon-stricken Philippines. From there it rather deteriorated into a wrangle over whether the Labour government’s 2009 decision to block Sri Lanka from hosting the two yearly summit until 2013 was a model Cameron should have repeated in 2011, or was iwhat had made last week’s Colombo summit an unbreakable date.

Among MPs, Cameron probably had the better argument. True, he seems now to know more about northern Sri Lanka than north London. First he accused of Miliband of knowing little of abroad and “barely getting out of Islington”.

Then he recalled David Miliband had said that we needed Prime Ministers who could “stop the traffic in Beijing”. Whereas, he told the younger brother: “You won’t even get out of Primrose Hill.” Miliband and his shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander found something about Cameron’s remarks pretty funny.

But while Labour MPs rightly asked sharp questions few directly challenged his decision to go. Plaid Cymru’s Elfyn Llwyd said he had opposed Cameron’s trip but that having heard his statement had changed his mind. It would have been quite a moment if Miliband had said the same. But in big party politics, U-turns like that break all the rules.