Donald Macintyre's Sketch: The curious incident of the peaceful PMQs


“Is there any point to which you wish to draw my attention?” Inspector Gregory might have asked Sherlock Holmes.

“The curious incident of the dog-fight between the party leaders at Prime Minister’s Questions,” he may have replied.

“But there was no dog-fight at Prime Minister’s Questions.”

“That was the curious incident.”

And so, with apologies to Conan Doyle, it was. The first Prime Minister’s Questions of 2014 was almost grown up! Ed Miliband set the new tone by asking Cameron for an update on, wait for it, the floods – and the “number of people affected and on what action is being taken now to ensure areas that could be affected by further flooding have all the necessary support.”

The bald text hardly conveys the daring, heterodox originality of his approach. This was a question actually requiring a factual answer. It didn’t impute blame. In short, it broke all the rules.

True, Miliband next mentioned mildly that “some people” had felt the energy companies’ response had been too slow – but only to ask “what steps” can be taken to speed it up in future. And the normally chuntering, gesticulating Ed Balls sat still as a statue beside him. (There is as yet no known statue of Balls, but it’s clear that he can pose for a sculptor if he chooses.) Later, Miliband asked, almost as unrancourously, about the social evil of fixed odds betting machines.

The result was an orgy of mutual politeness.

Startled as Cameron must have been, he rose largely to the occasion, saying that Miliband had been “absolutely right” that there were lessons from the “negatives” during the flooding. And he “absolutely” shared the Labour leader’s concern about betting machines. Miliband meanwhile confessed that the limits imposed by Labour’s 2005 Act “did not go nearly far enough.” At this rate both party leaders were heading for the kind of public self-criticism sessions favoured by local branches of the Chinese Communist Party under Mao.

The atmosphere was no doubt calmed  by cross party mourning after the sudden death of the popular Labour MP Paul Goggins. But Miliband had taken a calculated gamble – perhaps with an eye to the election campaign — that it’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable. (How long this will last remains to be seen.)

The session ended with Labour’s Ian Davidson chivalrously – if bluntly – defending Cameron against the common enemy: Scottish nationalism. Cameron was entirely right to resist SNP calls to debate with its leader, as “the last person Scots who support the ‘No’ campaign want to have as their representative is a Tory toff from the Home Counties.” Cameron joined the laughter, even when Davidson added a reference to the PM’s “fine haircut” – the architect of which, Lino Carbosiero, has just been rewarded with an MBE.

Ah, that haircut. Oddly, one MP with whom Cameron has a passing tonsorial resemblance is Labour’s Dennis Skinner. Unsurprisingly the significantly older Skinner’s hair is grey. He certainly doesn’t pay his barber £90 a cut. And counter-intuitively his parting is on the right while Carbosiero famously transferred Cameron’s parting to the left in 2007. But both have the same orderly, swept back look. And it’s difficult to guess which of the two will be more appalled by the comparison.

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