With Edwina Miliband at home on new-baby duties, we expected a battle of the deputies for PMQs. But after last week's gruelling encounter on tuition fees, Nick Clegg was stood down to recuperate and the Prime Minister faced up to Harriet himself.
Hard to know if this was well received by Clegg – he looked a little smaller for the occasion, and marched off at 180 degrees to Cameron at the end of the session in a way an angry son might do. Let's just note that Nick Clegg's high self-esteem is essential to the Coalition and he will need reflating in the workbay. So to Labour's deputy. So loyal, so clever, so sensible: how could Harriet have been so useless? She left her backbenches sitting there like a row of steak-and-kidney puddings with insufficient kidneys.
So loyal: there is no more sincere way of making your leader look good than by making yourself look bad. She must hope he's grateful – or at least know how to spell it.
So sensible: by sounding whiny, she was luring Cameron into an arrogance trap. "Come on: patronise me. I'm a woman you know. I don't really have any right to be here. Did I mention that I'm just a girl, aren't you just itching to be masterful? Come on Big Boy, you know you want to put a lead on me and drag me round the room!"
So clever... well, two out of three ain't bad. More than enough to prepare the ground for the rose-strewn return of Edwina. It must be said, though, that these Labour pleas for whopping housing benefits may look naïve when the world monetary system collapses.
Cameron continues to add texture as the country's greatest office feeds him material. He converted it into a parliamentary performance of courtesy, warmth and sincerity (I wonder who his mechanic is, the man's a genius).
He declined Harriet's gambits, and won the exchanges on policing in Manchester. He read out a list of department headcounts (that exhausted everyone) and repeated the fact that gathers weight with time: just 11 per cent of police force are on the beat at any one time.
Now, the Speaker's progress continues to provide narrative interest. Lacking natural authority, he's finding the business of controlling the Commons complex. He can shout down individuals but he does get swamped occasionally.
Yesterday, a scrum of Labour MPs (ringleaders: Steve McCabe and Denis Macshane, I think) chanted "Coulson! Coulson!" perhaps a dozen times during Cameron's account of how he'd do things differently : there'd be no Spads ordering around civil servants, no Damian McBride smearing MPs' wives, no Alastair Campbell sexing up. "The public hate it!" Bercow said when the chanting was over, but the fact is that Bercow hates it. It makes him look impotent.
Immediately after, he exerted himself on Tory Brian Binley with the words: "He will resume his seat not when he chooses to but when I choose." It's the sort of remark that needs another 50lbs in weight, six inches in height and 25 years of experience to get away with. It provoked an interplay of Tories doing that falsetto playground "Woooo!" as he said "when I choose". There's a first, the Speaker being taunted openly. The up-and-down "Woo!" is only there for one reason: to make the object of attention burst into tears.
Still, it's all just phoney war, for the time being. It's the summer of 1914, before the Archduke was shot. We must take what amusement we can.Reuse content