Quiet bipartisan reasonableness did not last long. Prime Minister’s Questions last week was an interesting experiment, but it was Ed Miliband’s experiment and David Cameron didn’t want to give the opposition leader the satisfaction of being hailed as the Man Who Civilised the House of Commons.
And Miliband was nervous about it. I was told last week that he would like to do PMQs differently, but that it would depend on how Cameron responded. Today he got his answer. The Prime Minister accused him of having “all the moral authority of Reverend Flowers”.
To hedge his bets, Miliband had turned up the partisan dial a notch. His first question was a quiet and reasonable enquiry about bonuses at RBS, the government-owned bank. But that’s his usual style. It is after the first question that the shouting match usually begins. Today, Miliband split the difference, by becoming semi-strident about bonuses worth more than salaries. The Labour wall of noise behind him was modulated to about three-quarters of concert volume. And Ed Balls sat quietly next to his leader, holding his hands in his lap, a wonder of inner conflict playing out on his fixed features.
Cameron was having none of it. He hated bankers just as much as the other side. He was just as tough on bonuses. And it was that lot that let RBS drive into the brick wall. In case anyone didn’t get the message, he gratuitously compared Miliband to the Co-op Bank boss with a complicated private life.
And just to show that he meant it, Cameron spent most of the rest of the session being as bipartisan and reasonable as only he can to every other Labour MP. Keith Vaz, the chairman of the home affairs select committee, asked a question of devastating saccharine insincerity about the “war on sugar” against the “twin epidemics of obesity and type-II diabetes”. I’m not saying Vaz was insincere but he sounded it and to use the language of war and epidemic threatens to make a public health problem sound risible. The Prime Minister sank to the occasion, said “Mrs Cameron” would be pleased if he gave up sugar for a day, and treated the subject with treacly seriousness.
As a result, he commanded the session easily. Miliband simply sounded nervous and subdued rather than statesmanlike. Asking a second set of questions about house-building, which Cameron effortlessly rebutted by asserting, “Of course we need to build new homes,” the leader of the opposition paused to correct himself. He said we needed “a quarter of a million” new homes, but corrected it to “two hundred and fifty thousand”. I suppose in his PMQs prep someone had said that a lot of thousands sounds like more than a fraction of a million.
The only Labour MP to land a blow was Siobhain McDonagh, Blairite Central, who prefaced her question by saying that most people did not know that the Government plans to make applicants for the police force pay a £1,000 fee to sign up. She called it a “bobby tax” and asked if the Prime Minister agreed that it was wrong, decades after having abolished the purchase of commissions in the armed forces, to reintroduce it for the police.
Cameron was discomfited, muttered something about a College of Policing to turn the force into a profession and said that the Home Secretary would get back to McDonagh about it.
I give the “bobby tax” about a week. On style, Cameron won. On substance, McDonagh put him flat on his back.