Cameron raised the question of Brown’s authority. Brown counter-attacked. Why didn’t Cameron ask about policy rather than reducing everything ‘to personality’? Cameron insisted that Brown himself was the issue. Quoting long and embarrassing chunks from Hazel Blears’s weekend tirade he asked, ‘Why’s she still in the cabinet? His government simply cannot go on.’ The PM accused the Tories of being unable to tackle big decisions, and Cameron hit back with a list of recent judgments revised by Downing Street. On they went, pinging the ball to and fro. Brown argued that Cameron had reneged on his vow to stick to Labour spending plans. ‘Compassionate conservatism?’ he bellowed, ‘it’s gone, gone, gone.’ Cameron paused for a moment. ‘I’m sure that sounded great in the bunker, while the mobile phones were flying.’ He used up both his final questions urging Brown to go to the country. ‘Do the last bold thing left to him. Call an election.’ This was forcefully put but it gave Brown an opportunity to observe that Cameron had failed to debate the issues and to deduce from that, illogically yet somehow credibly, that the Tory leader was therefore unfit for office.
Brown’s backbenchers rushed to bolster his position. If this is a Labour panic, it’s very well organised. Toady after toady stood up and croaked a question about Labour regeneration, Labour investment, Labour apprenticeships. Brown happily took his cue and reeled off his usual lists of assistance schemes and relief packages. Though the tactics here were perfectly bogus they created an effective impression of Labour unity and discipline.
Nick Clegg, invigorated by last week’s excellent performance, laid into the PM on the subject of education. Irked by Brown’s response he intensified his fire. ‘There comes a point where stubbornness becomes stupidity not leadership.’ Barracked by Labour, he turned directly to them. ‘At least I’m saying it to his face. You do it behind his back.’ Excellent to see some passion and pluck from the Lib Dem leader, who has finally made his mark in the house.
Tory backbenchers tried to make more of the Blears smears against Brown but, by some curious political algebra, the tactic failed. Attempting to capitalise on Labour’s self-inflicted wounds made the Conservatives seem seemed shallow and opportunistic. Assuming a lofty air, Brown claimed he felt ashamed that the Conservatives refused to debate policy.
Only one MP, Stephen Crabb, prodded the PM out of his statesmanlike comfort-zone. Crabb had a carefully worded question about reports of ‘bullying in the senior ranks at Whitehall’, a witty reference to press gossip that the Brown volcano has blown its top several times lately and rained brimstone on junior functionaries. Brown was taken by surprise and pulled a strangely eloquent face - flushed, angry, embarrassed, cornered and cruel all at once. ‘Any complaints are dealt with in the usual manner,’ he said coldly, and thus convicted himself in the minds of the public. Only a true thug would pull such a twisted and heartless expression. By tonight Brown will have another success on YouTube.
I scored today as a draw. Cameron was on good form, serene, poised and confident but with no hint of triumphalism, and apparently unconcerned that he failed to land a killer blow. Brown played the philosopher-king rather well. Clearly it’s a role that suits him. If he stuck to the philosophy and forgot about being king we’d all be much better off.