Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

PMQs: Not setting the House on fire

I know the Conservative party has been trying to rebrand itself the workers’ party but for the Tory prime minister David Cameron to compare himself with Nye Bevan was quite shameless.

It was in answer to a question about the NHS when Cameron claimed there were now 2,000 more nurses, and more than when Bevan stood at the dispatch box in the 1940s (whether he implied that Bevan had been prime minister is a moot point, but Cameron’s grasp on history has always been a bit weak: he prefers chillaxing in front of DVDs than looking at history books).

It was a dodgy and meaningless statistic though. There are, by fairly common agreement, 6,000 fewer nurses since 2010. Still, it is the authority with which you say it. If you are an old Etonian, it does not have to be true.

I suppose the Bevan remark was revenge for Labour purloining Disraeli to become the One Nation party. Bevan was never much of a One Nation man in that sense and his 1948 speech famously described the Conservative party as ‘lower than vermin’. Bevan had a good line in the same speech too about Toryism being ‘organised spivvery.’ How little has changed.

Ed Miliband just went on the Ukrainian crisis this week. He wanted Cameron to condemn the Russian invasion and reassurances that Britain would not shrink from taking all measures possible. It was worth going on the subject to throw back the line that Cameron had used when Russia went into Georgia that ‘Russian armies can’t march into other countries while Russian shoppers carry on marching into Selfridges.’ And compare it with the Foreign Office line yesterday that the UK should not support, for now, trade sanctions or close London’s financial centre to Russians. Miliband wanted to know that Britain would put pressure on Russia. Cameron (sort of) gave an assurance but said that we had to act as member of the European Union and leaders within the IMF and with the Americans. No more going it alone then.

Although this was a relatively sober exchange, there is nothing to show that prime minister’s questions has really changed despite the speaker John Bercow’s desire to reform the weekly setpiece.

There were still lots of boring planted questions by the Tory backbenchers on apprenticeships and the government’s long-term economic plan. To hear the Tories, you would think youth unemployment was barely a problem any more. Say it enough and it becomes true.

Labour’s women were out in force. They are, as we know, Miliband’s secret weapon to rile Cameron. Diana Johnson (Hull North) wanted to know why there was not an internet ban on simulated child abuse and rape. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) asked about her constituents who were denied legal aid funding for the inquest of their children who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Greece. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) asked about food waste and food banks, a subject which usually annoys Cameron. And Jenny Chapman (Darlington) asked about accident and emergency waiting times.

Jack Straw was the only person who really got the Commons going when he asked about carriages being cut from the already overcrowded TransPennine Express to go on Chiltern railways ‘for the greater comfort of commuters in the south-east.’ There was much merriment and shouting because Straw has a house in the Cotswolds as well as in his constituency in Blackburn. Cameron was not going to let him forget it. He told Straw that the line from the Cotwolds town of Charlbury  (in Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency) had improved and was now twin-track. It was a putdown of sorts, but in slightly poor taste – this is a problem with lots of Cameron putdowns. We were left in no doubt either that despite protestations about the northern hub project, Cameron really only cares about the south.

From the shires there were faint echoes of discontent over planning policy from Tory members of parliament and a concern from some on the Labour benches that the government was going to use statutory instruments (for which there does not have to be a vote in the House of Commons) to relax hunting laws.

But nothing really set the chamber alight.


Sally Gimson is a journalist, a Labour councillor, and reviews PMQs on Progress

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Sally Gimson

is a journalist, a Labour councillor, and reviews PMQs on Progress. She tweets @SallyGimson

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