I thought that David Cameron would avoid the subject of the drug-taking former chairman of the Co-op Bank at Prime Minister’s Questions. Paul Flowers, the rogue Methodist minister, is not the Labour leader’s problem, of course, but I thought Cameron might stay off the subject because he was disciplined at school for cannabis and has refused to answer questions about hard drugs. I thought he would stick to the email, copied in error to a Tory MP, in which Ed Miliband’s economic adviser described Ed Balls as a “nightmare”. I forgot that shamelessness is one of the traits for which the survival of the fittest selects in politics.
In the first question, a Conservative MP previously unknown to modern science, Steve Brine (Winchester, apparently), managed to mention both “Co-op Bank” and “nightmare”. In his answer, Cameron suggested that there might be an inquiry into the Co-op Bank, thus setting up the session for one of his most convincing wins in recent months. Not that we approve of Punch and Judy style politics, or the kind of shallow political analysis that sees holding the head of government to account as mere point-scoring. We disapprove, entirely, but note that the Prime Minister won 6-0 and succeeded in what is known in higher political analysis as wiping the floor with the Leader of the Opposition.
Every one of Miliband’s six questions was what is known in higher political analysis as cut off at the knees. We have finally found a full and independent public inquiry that he doesn’t support, said Cameron. When Miliband tried to talk about the closure of children’s centres - note that Labour doesn’t call them Sure Start centres any more: that never really caught on - Cameron accused him of spending the same money, from a hypothetical higher bank levy, 10 times over. “That isn’t a policy, it’s a night out with Reverend Flowers.” Not funny. Not fair. Totally effective.
Miliband worked himself up to his peroration. As George Osborne is said to say, in politics you need to know how to count. All Miliband has to do, on these occasions, is to count to six. He has to end his sixth and last question with a good line. “This Prime Minister is a loser,” he asserted, loudly, in the face of a wall of evidence to the contrary.
On the contrary, the Prime Minister was only just getting going. He scored a new media first by responding to a question from an innocent and unsuspecting Labour backbencher with a tweet from seven minutes earlier by the former Labour minister, Tony McNulty. McNulty had been heckling Ed Miliband on Twitter for switching subject from children’s centres, and now said: “Public desperate for PM in waiting who speaks for them - not Leader of Opposition indulging in partisan Westminster Village knockabout.” Cameron didn’t make best use of it, but it revealed a Conservative attack machine gearing up to implement the Bill Clinton 1992 campaign dictum, “Speed Kills.”
Then Cameron continued with his drugs-based theme, saying that a question from Michael Meacher, once a candidate for Labour’s deputy leadership, suggested the effects of “mind-altering substances”. Labour uproar. Miliband indignation. Ed Balls changed his stream of continuous heckling across the Chamber to “apologise” and “mind-altering substances”. The Prime Minister went on happily, returning now to the “nightmare” email, saying that he had been trying to tell Miliband that about his Shadow Chancellor for 15 years (which takes us back to 1998, for some reason).
In one of the pauses in the noise, Teresa Pearce, a Labour backbencher, asked a real question. Was it right that the head of a housing association in her constituency had taken redundancy with a pay-off of £397,000? The Prime Minister said he would look into it, so perhaps something useful was accomplished.