It’s because David Cameron is usually on top of his brief that it’s always worth seeing him handle questions for which he seems unprepared. Today, sadly for the Opposition, these did not come from Labour. Instead Ed Miliband unwisely returned to the brain-numbing, heart-sinking subject of Those NHS Statistics. Medians at Dawn! Again.
The Labour leader may be right to lean on “the common-sense definition of a waiting time in A&E” as being the time you actually spend in the place rather than how long you wait for your first contact with a nurse. And Cameron’s now routine denunciation of Andy Burnham as the Labour Health Secretary who “presided over the mid-Staffs disgrace” sits a little uneasily with his statesmanlike refusal to make party politics out of the scandal when the report came out last year.
But with every number Miliband produces to show things are getting worse, Cameron has at least one to prove it’s getting better. And he had a whole week to prepare them.
No, it was the Tory Mark Reckless who apparently floored Cameron by asking what the PM called a “Delphic” question: “Should taxpayer money be used to gather information on MPs that is then retained by a Chief Whip or shredded?”
Yet ever since the airing of an interview with a Tory who was a whip in the early seventies saying that trouble with “small boys” was just the sort of “jam” they would happily get MPs out of, Reckless has been commendably trying to find out what access to the whips’ records the child abuse enquiries will have.
And the DUP’s Gregory Campbell had earlier asked a question about the Northern Ireland baker accused of discrimination after refusing to make a customer a gay-themed “Bert and Erne” cake on the grounds of his Christian beliefs. He was not “aware of the specific case”, claimed Cameron, before going on to proclaim the “British” belief in equality – including, as it happens, “for people with different sexualities”.
Which made you think. Maybe Cameron was not unsighted but prudent. After all it’s hard to think of many prime ministerial tasks more worth ducking in public – tangling with a hard-line Ulster protestant on gay marriage or sweeping out the secrets from the doubtless very dark corners of the party whips’ offices.
After the Miliband-Cameron NHS non-event, it was almost a relief when Iain Duncan Smith was dragged to the Commons by Labour’s Chris Bryant to explain why the Civil Service head Sir Bob Kerslake had been obliged to admit that the Treasury had not signed off on the grand plan for Universal Credit. This would happen “very soon” – said IDS, which given some of his other confident forecasts, was slightly south of bankable.
Anyway, Bryant was “the best instance of a man in an ill-fitting anorak dancing on the head of a pin” – a memorable image. And three times he accused Labour programmes of having “crashed and burned”. Was this just a little Freudian, however, reflecting a latent fear that this could yet be the fate of Universal Credit?