PMQs: More sport than seriousness in bad-tempered debate over privatisation

Miliband knew the subject of the Royal Mail was tricky territory


Barely worth it this week. I enjoyed it well enough: as entertainment it was lively, but you cannot help yearning for a bit of seriousness. The back-and-forth over the sale of the Royal Mail was rude and bad-tempered. Ed Miliband and David Cameron both seemed genuinely cross about it, and the whole thing was amazingly childish. “Not so much the Wolf of Wall Street but the Dunce of Downing Street,” said Miliband. Only I heard it as “Ducks”, which would have been better, in a bafflingly inexplicable way. “Dunce” is a silly word if you are throwing insults around in the second decade of the 21st century.

“Muppets,” which is what the Prime Minister called Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, is much better. An almost affectionate post-modern reference to a children’s TV programme.

After that, though, Miliband asked a serious question. What happened to the “gentleman’s agreement” with City institutions to hold their shares for the long term? Never mind that it didn’t make any sense: what would have been the point of their holding the shares for years and years? Everyone noticed that the Prime Minister didn’t answer it. This is not necessarily a problem. Good parliamentarians can keep the House on their side if they avoid a question, provided that they are witty or clever about it. Cameron wasn’t. He said: “We know why he is asking the question: because he is paid to by the trade unions.”

This was rude and childish, and worst of all, no one believes it. Everyone knows why Miliband asked the question: he asked it because he doesn’t like capitalism. He thinks privatisation is a scam; that “the City” is the enemy; and that markets are bad. That should be enough seriousness for one day. It was, indeed, the underlying seriousness of the session. Cameron got to the point later, accusing Miliband of being “anti-market, anti-competition, anti-business”.

But the Prime Minister knew it was a tricky argument for him: people are sentimental about post offices and the sale does seem to have been poorly designed. There should have been a way of testing the market before the full flotation.

And Miliband knew it was tricky for him, which was why, question unanswered, he observed: “He’s gone as red as a post box.” Now that really was a good childish insult, and, as if this were a piece of music, it set up the best put-down of the session. Cameron picked up on Miliband’s closing flourish, describing the privatisation as “ a sale nobody wanted”.

The Prime Minister said: “It was a sale nobody wanted? It was in his manifesto!” Wild cheers all round, as Miliband looked at Ed Balls beside him and said he didn’t think it was in the manifesto - and writing the manifesto was his job in 2010 until Peter Mandelson rewrote it.

It wasn’t in the manifesto, although the Labour whips failed to get another MP to point this out in a question, and it was left to Jonathan Ashworth, a deputy chair of the party, to raise it in a spurious point of order after Questions were over.

So, one of those collapsing-soufflé triumphs, that lasted - in these days of instant Twitter rebuttal - only a minute or two. Although, if you want a bit of seriousness, Cameron’s punch line was true in the sense that the Labour government had tried to sell the Royal Mail but couldn’t find a buyer.

Ed Balls’s heckling continued after the session was over. As the Prime Minister made his way out of the Chamber, Balls followed him on the other side, telling him he had been so rude and nasty that his own side were embarrassed and looking at the floor.

It wasn’t true, but it should have been.

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