Lloyd Evans

A percentage game at PMQs

A percentage game at PMQs
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Open up your political lexicons. Inscribe this one in permanent ink. We’ll be laughing about it for years to come. Answering a question at PMQs on budget reductions, Gordon Brown promised that in 2013/14 there would be ‘a zero percent rise’ in spending. This bizarre piece of tweak-onomics was flung straight back at him by David Cameron. ‘That answer will get zero percent,’ said Dave. He then produced a Treasury report confirming that spending will shrink in the medium term.

Brown wriggled and shifted and changed the subject clumsily. ‘The debate is about this – how to return to jobs and growth in the economy.’ He rattled off a list of pet schemes – mostly for kiddies and the unemployed – which he claimed the Tories proposed to cut. Cameron disagreed. The debate was about trust. Would the prime minister be straight with the British people and admit the truth about cuts? Fat chance he would. Instead he called the Tories ‘the only serious party in the world’ calling for budget reductions.

‘Complete nonsense,’ said Cameron. ‘Not even his own cabinet now take this line.’ As for the ‘ludicrous Mr Ten Percent’ label, Cameron said, ‘it’s not doing any damage to us.’ He sounded a touch over-confident here. If it’s doing no damage then logically he must want Labour to squander more energy repeating it. Instead he’s spot-lit a frailty and invited further attacks. Then, with a great puff of smoke and a volley of statistics he tried whacking the PM with a bigger version of the same weapon. He called Gordon Brown, ‘Mr Thirteen and a half percent.’ Brown smiled with relief as that silly title whizzed harmlessly over his head.

Cameron won today but after three weeks on the same issue it’s time for a fresh offensive. He looks as tired and impatient attacking the PM on spending as the rest of us feel listening to it. Paradoxically, the spending row is at its liveliest in the press - and on sites like this - where one can peruse the coloured charts at one’s leisure and chortle with disbelief at the government’s shameless misreadings of them. Not so in a live debate. Digit-wrangling is a feeble rhetorical weapon because arithmetic makes no appeal to the emotions.

Nick Clegg bumbled in and had a go at both parties at once. ‘The bogus debate on public spending has hit new lows,’ he said. Wrong. The Tory assault on Gordon’s lies is not bogus but principled.  And with hundreds of bloggers hounding Brown it’s also breaking new political territory. But Clegg was merely teeing himself up for his big drive up the green. ‘Both are trading insults so they can both avoid telling the truth,’ he said. Neatly phrased but what was the game-plan? Taking on the entire house is a doomed tactic. With his second question he got to the point. Trident. He taxed the PM for signing the deal covertly during the summer recess. Good issue. Excellent point. If he’d mentioned it earlier he might have made some ground.

Tory backbenchers attempted to inflict more pain on the PM over budget cuts but he scuttled behind his stockade and caterwauled at them like an 80s class-warrior. ‘The Conservatives have no plan for jobs,’ he yelled and he claimed there’d be ‘thousands more unemployed’ if the opposition gained power. Clearly this will be Labour’s battle-cry as the jobless total rises: ‘It’s bad now but it’ll be worse under them.’ Logically this is nonsense. But it’s shrewd politics to cultivate fear during a slump.

And what of John Bercow today? I barely noticed him. For a Speaker that’s a good result.