This is amazing. People could scarcely believe it. No less an organism than the Big Society was spotted briefly at PMQs today. Angie Bray, Tory member for South Acton, asked David Cameron to praise a voluntary programme which enables her constituents to share skills and expertise with their neighbours. ‘This is what the Big Society is all about,’ declared Bray, (with the quietly jubilant tone of one who knows her elevation to government will not be long delayed.) Cameron’s delight was palpable. He beamed at everyone. Then his eager ears picked up the groan of a Labour cynic opposite and he instantly switched into a mode of preachy dismay which he may well have learned from Nick Clegg. In a weary voice the PM regretted that ‘honourable members of the opposition sigh every time a member mentions a worthwhile charity or voluntary group.’ He urged us to ignore ‘money going in’ and focus on ‘results coming out’. As he basks in his honeymoon radiance Mr Cameron can afford to indulge in these high-minded grace-notes. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.
Hattie Harman showed up in another of her ill-advised creations, a dress-suit of strangely misaligned pin-stripes which made her look as if she was wearing a map of the earth’s magnetic field. But the Hatwoman had a decent outing today. She pressed Cameron to answer a question which she guessed might cause him trouble. Is he going to scrap Labour’s two week guarantee for patients waiting to see a cancer specialist?
Cameron ducked and dodged. He shimmied and squirmed. He tried to re-frame the question by comparing the UK with the rest of Europe but he succeeded only in looking shifty, indecisive and amateurish, like Gordon at his worst. The answer to Hattie’s question is Yes – and everyone can see that it’s Yes – so it’d be better to give it straight and follow it up with a succinct and graphic illustration of the target system’s inflexibility. It’s folly forcing doctors to spend time examining waiting lists rather than examining the people on the waiting lists. But by failing to answer, Cameron gave Hattie an open goal which she duly slotted in and celebrated with a lap of honour and a ha-ha chorus of ‘he hasn’t anwered the question.’ Moving to the restructuring of the NHS she asked him to disclose the cost of the big rejig this year. To her delight, he didn’t answer that one either. She followed this up with one of the PM’s own lamentations on bureaucratic shakeups. ‘The disruption is terrible, the demoralization worse, and the waste of money inexcusable.’ Here Cameron showed a flash of his debating mettle and he deftly widened the issue. ‘We’re not reorganising the bureaucracy. We’re scrapping the bureaucracy! Is that the new dividing line? Labour backs the bureaucracy. We back the NHS.’
Honours were shared between the leaders today. Elsewhere the session was an unusual mixture of urbanity and good-natured knockabout. A new MP called Valery Vaz (oddly familiar name) asked if Michael Gove would interrupt his ‘I’m-sorry-tour’ of the country to visit some of the crumbling schools in her constituency. Cameron turned this jibe on its head and paid tribute to Gove’s brave act of contrition. The PM wondered airily if Ms Vaz was here ‘to keep an eye on her brother and see what he’s been up to.’ So that’s it. The Vaz has been joined by a Vazette.
Cameron had fun taking a swipe at Angus Robertson who, it must be said, presents a target of impressive magnitude. A living, breathing hymn to the benefits of over-eating, Mr Robertson told us that he fears the defence review may bring about ‘the ‘wholesale destruction of defence capability in Scotland’. Cameron affected bemusement. ‘I always find the SNP position on this confusing. I thought you weren’t in favour of having a British army.’
The PM even had a dig at himself. Asked to congratulate Loughborough University on the titanic sums raised by its students during rag-week Cameron took the opportunity to pay tribute to undergraduates everywhere. ‘Sometimes,’ he noted with a lofty frown, ‘students can get a bad press for what they do.’ Unfortunately he wasn’t the first to see the joke.