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Donald Macintyre's Sketch: The S-word prompts an unseemly bout of consensus

  • @indyvoices

MPs can be quite good at raising something without actually mentioning it. “As the Deputy Prime Minister knows, sorry is still the hardest word to say,” Labour’s Michael McCann said, misquoting Elton John in a preamble to a question which had nothing to with That Lib Dem Crisis.

(For readers unavoidably detained on Mars this week, this referred not to Nick Clegg himself, whose own “sorry” over tuition fees is so famous that it has been set to music, but the trouble caused him by former election wizard Lord Rennard’s refusal to apologise to women accusing him of sexual harassment. Trouble now gruesomely magnified by fresh revelations about the Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock.)

McCann was in fact inviting David Cameron to agree that the SNP leader Alex Salmond should apologise for a Scottish independence White Paper “that dodges the tough questions”. Which Cameron did. Expect more of these touching little truces between the main parties in the coming months, lasting just long enough for them to give the Nats a kicking.

Apologies were a theme since for about the 400th time Cameron had demanded one from Ed Miliband “for the mess that he left us”. (Cameron himself is a serial apologiser, of course, but only for misdeeds he had absolutely nothing to do with, preferably occurring when he was still at prep school, like Bloody Sunday).

This came in the second, rougher half of exchanges in which Miliband provoked derisive roars from the Tory benches just by welcoming the fall in unemployment. (He had no alternative, but it was terrifying to think how they would have reacted if he’d denounced it). After Miliband then complained that average wages had dropped £1,600 since the election, Cameron declared: “He is like an arsonist who goes round setting fire after fire and then complains when the fire brigade are not putting out the fires fast enough.”

Miliband’s retort that Cameron was deploying his “Bullingdon Club routine” was hardly new. But it would be nice to imagine that he was implying that this was something the Bullers themselves might have done at Oxford. After all, the line between systematic restaurant trashing and a spot of mild fire-raising is fine.

Earlier Miliband had again tried out his softer, maturer style in pressing Cameron to agree to Britain’s joining the new UN programme to resettle “a small number of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees” – with modest success. As in, Cameron: “I do not think that there is a disagreement between us…” Miliband: “I do feel we are gradually inching forward on this issue”. Refreshing while it lasted. Which wasn’t long, inevitably.

Labour’s Stephen Timms had an even clearer result, when Cameron told him he would be “happy to meet” the Trussell Trust, which co-ordinates 400 food banks. Not the best of news for Iain Duncan Smith, who has been refusing to do just that.