The Sketch: Cameron avoids the cutting question as clichés abound

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:43

The hurdles were set so low that it was like stepping off an escalator for David Cameron and Ed Miliband to make speeches that could be held to "rise to the level of events", the cliché eventually used by John Bercow, the Speaker. For the Prime Minister, the level was set by his deputy, now sitting behind him on his right, in a serious purple tie, looking up, frowning briefly and then looking to one side. Nick Clegg was reported in these pages on Wednesday as saying: "I wonder whether some of the youngsters out on the streets last night have really thought through the consequences of what they did. That's why they shouldn't do it again."

Could Cameron do better than that? Of course he could. The code for this is: "He got the tone right." So he did, and more. He balanced praise for police officers with criticism of their tactics, "which weren't working". And he made a proposal – which was so sensible you had to ask why the law had not been changed long ago – that the police should have the power to insist on the removal of face coverings if they have reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

For Ed Miliband, the level was set by his deputy, Harriet Harman, who mentioned the tripling of tuition fees and the abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) on Newsnight. She had not meant they were a cause of the riots, oh no: she was just saying words because that is what you do on television.

So all the Leader of the Opposition had to do – as well as getting the tone right, of course – was not mention tuition fees and EMA. Labour MPs breathed a sigh of relief when he got to the end of his response without hinting that he was trying to excuse bad behaviour. He asked how the Coalition's dismantling of the New Labour illiberal state, the one with all the CCTV cameras, was coming along. It is a debating point, naturally, but a good one, and Cameron was forced, under repeated questioning from Labour backbenchers, to admit that using CCTV cameras "prop'ly" (standard meaningless word copied from Tony Blair) "may well mean having more of them".

Miliband also asked the one question worth asking yesterday: whether it was right to go ahead with the cuts in police numbers. That was also repeated by Labour MPs, unusually doing their job by keeping up a line of questioning. Cameron responded by answering a different question, saying that cutting police budgets by 6 per cent was no big deal.

But goodness, there was a lot of waffle too. At least Miliband tried to deal with the question of whether it was worth recalling Parliament. "Parliament needs to do its job," he said, and he went on – this was a surprise – to define what it was. First, uniting; second, debating. But the House united in cliché and debated in sub-sociological jargon.

Miliband's own words began with "shoulder to shoulder", another borrowing from Blair. He had the decent law-abiding majority, Cameron had people not being taught the difference between right and wrong, a reprise of the broken society and a repeated attempt to have "to surge" accepted in dictionaries as a transitive verb.

Labour MPs were united in demanding that first recourse of thoughtlessness, a FIPI – a full and independent public inquiry. Don't be silly, said the Prime Minister (I paraphrase), I've been handing those out like street flyers recently. "It was common or garden thieving, robbing and looting. We do not need an inquiry to tell us that."

The Tory backbenchers failed miserably to rise to the occasion, though. No one mentioned hanging, despite the Downing Street e-petition. Or flogging. All we had was Sir Peter Tapsell, the pantomime dame known as the Father of the House, asking why troops could not round up rioters and put them in Wembley stadium, and Nadine Dorries, another figure of fun, who wanted water cannon at less than 24 hours' notice, rubber bullets and tear gas. Everyone bemoaned the lack of social responsibility and used the word community.

But no one pointed out that there was looting during the Second World War.

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'

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