Prime Minister’s Questions: polite, well-brought-up David Cameron lets the mask slip for a moment

The first time the Prime Minister has faced the House of Commons since the party conferences and by-elections

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister is a polite man, but sometimes it is a struggle. Ed Miliband rose to louder than usual Conservative cheers and was forced to “welcome the fall in unemployment” – after he apologised for his sore throat. David Cameron’s upbringing kicked in automatically and he said he was sure the whole House wished he would “get well soon”.

He can think on his feet too, though, so he followed it up with a feeble joke, saying that if the Labour leader got a doctor’s appointment, “I hope he doesn’t forget it.” Miliband responded with an equally feeble line: “I lost a couple of paragraphs of my speech. He’s lost a couple of Members of Parliament.”

Then Miliband deployed his secret weapon. A quotation from David Freud, the welfare reform minister, that appeared to suggest that some disabled people were “not worth” the full minimum wage. I thought it was gotcha politics rather than a serious contribution to the question of the employability of the mentally disabled.

Cameron started to give a polite and controlled answer, saying that he didn’t agree with what Lord Freud said. But then he had a Bilbo Baggins moment – you know the bit in the Lord of the Rings film where Bilbo briefly loses control and demands “my” ring back.

“I don’t need lectures from anyone about looking after disabled people,” he shot, fierce eyes glowing. This is dangerous territory, a reference to his son, Ivan, who died at the age of six in 2009.

He recovered his composure quickly, but had to retreat to generalities for his final reply to Miliband, concluding merely that “he’s not up to the job”. Not a startlingly original observation, but a safe one.

The poise and courtesy had returned by the time he was asked a question by David Ward, the MP for Bradford East who specialises in not getting thrown out of the Lib Dems for comments about “the Jews” and the “apartheid state of Israel”. Ward wanted to know if the Prime Minister agreed with the Palestinian ambassador to London that the UK government should recognise Palestine as a state, as the Commons voted to do this week. Cameron’s answer was a long, restrained version of No.

Then Meg Hillier, Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, asked whether the Government ought to be doing something about the fate of Kobani, in Syria, under threat from Isis. Instead of seizing on the question and pointing out that Hillier plainly did not agree with her leader’s policy, which is to oppose UK air strikes in Syria, in contrast to those in Iraq, where the government had asked for international support, Cameron said mildly that she had made a very important point. He said, in effect, that the UK ought to take part in air strikes in Syria, but that the House of Commons wouldn’t support it, although he avoided a partisan criticism of the Labour leader, who could change that.

He was even polite to Douglas Carswell, the new UKIP MP, sitting on the Opposition benches, who asked a question about the Bill to allow MPs to be “recalled” by disaffected constituents. Not that he even looked in Carswell’s direction while answering the question, taking advantage rather extravagantly of Commons convention to answer through the Chair, with his back turned to the “re-sent” Member for Clacton.

Towards the end of the session, Nic Dakin, the Labour MP, asked if the Prime Minister would “meet with myself” to discuss a problem in Scunthorpe, his constituency. Cameron replied, courteously echoing the questioner’s mangled syntax, “I am happy to meet with himself.”

That was taking politeness too far.

Twitter: @JohnRentoul