On paper this had all the makings of a triple AAA nightmare for David Cameron. He arrived at PMQs as the downgraded leader of a downgraded country on the eve of a by-election defeat that will suggest he is on course to be a one-term prime minister. As for the Lib Dems, reeling from the Rennard crisis, Nick Clegg looked ill and depressed, possibly fearing his mishandling of the situation and briefings against his leadership would make him the target of Labour and Tory jibes.
So, crisis for Cameron and crisis for Clegg. More importantly, economic crisis for Britain, and one that is hurting tens of millions of people in whose interest Labour seeks to govern. Would Tory and Lib Dem MPs’ dissatisfaction and mutinous mutterings about their leaders spring in to the open? Would coalition mutual loathing be exposed for the country to see even as they are at each others’ throats somewhere in a suburban front drive in Hampshire?
Well, not really. It only sparked to life when Cameron surprisingly quoted a New Statesman critique of Labour’s economic approach, leading Ed to remark he was ‘really scraping the barrel by quoting the New Statesman’. There was a sharp intake of breath. It was a surprising remark given that we all suspect that, just like many people reading this now, Ed may well have been a subscriber to the Staggers since at least his early teenage years.
Cameron’s withering riposte that the NS was ‘the only newspaper that backed Ed Miliband for leader’ was a true OUCH moment and allowed him to deflect Miliband’s charges of economic incompetence, at least for a few seconds.
Ed does, of course, have the useful benefit of being right on the big issue of whether the government is failing on the economy, and he sought to drive home the key point by returning to how the government has failed its own key test on the credit rating. And they can’t deny they are borrowing £212bn more than planned – a shocking statistic that exposes the cost of failure under the Tories as the economy stagnates.
Cameron returned again and again to unconvincing claims about how well the economy is actually doing and some tired and boring attacks on Labour’s record focused on Gordon Brown. Though, with his recitation of economic stats, it was Cameron who was most reminiscent of Gordon. Cameron also repeatedly returned to an audacious attempt to shift the focus on to what John O’Farrell may have said years ago about the Falklands and Margaret Thatcher. That won’t save you tomorrow in Eastleigh, Mr Cameron, never mind at the general election.
It was one of those days when Labour supporters will want to remember that the Punch and Judy of PMQs bears no relation to how people feel in the country or to actual election results. Cameron won the knockabout joust, but the two Eds have the facts on their side, and the understanding of real people’s concerns to win the wider argument.
Credit to Lib Dem, Adrian Sanders, for challenging the PM over what is being described by campaigners as ‘Jeremy’s Hunt privatisation plot’. This hitherto obscure statutory instrument arising from last year’s Health and Social Care Act that means GP services will be put out to competitive tender. As Labour’s Debbie Abrahams pointed out: the government gave categorical assurances on this that are being broken. If only Lib Dem MPs hadn’t nodded it all through in the first place!
However, I would give my quadruple A rating to not one but four Labour MPs: Catherine McKinnell, Tom Clarke, Gemma Doyle and Wayne David. All of them quietly but powerfully exposing the true impact of the Tory bedroom tax on some of the most vulnerable people in society. Their quiet and controlled fury about the impact of this ill-thought-through and iniquitous piece of Tory ideology on their constituents was a powerful reminder of what Cameron really represents.
Best question, answer, comment or joke?
There wasn’t much to laugh about. It therefore pains me to say it has to be Cameron’s response on the New Statesman, which showed he is not to be underestimated as a debater. Chris Bryant tried a few valiant heckles of ‘SARAH PALIN’ when the Tory’s embarrassing Eastleigh candidate, Maria Hutchings, was mentioned, but this was quickly put down by the speaker.
Phil Jones is a Labour councillor. He tweets @PhilJones79
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