Lloyd Evans

Brown gets through PMQs smiling

Brown gets through PMQs smiling
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After a nifty performance last week, Dave displayed lots of sluggish footwork today. Everyone was desperate for him to nail Brown over his ‘British jobs for British workers’ gaffe but instead Dave opened by asking the PM to condemn international protectionism. An easy shot, safely dealt with by Brown.

What was Dave playing at? The TV news is teeming with ‘winter of discontent’ style images showing crowds of indignant workers braving the blizzards to demonstrate their anger against the PM. And the Tory leader doesn’t mention it? Eventually, on his third question, Dave finally stirred himself to ask Brown to admit that BJ4BW had been a mistake and to apologise. Brown wriggled and squirmed. ‘Can anybody here say they don’t want British workers to get jobs in our country?’ Then he settled back into his comfort-zone rhetoric about the global nature of the crisis and his government’s investment in jobs which the ‘do-nothing’ Tories had opposed.

Evasive and defensive as this was, Dave seemed unprepared for it. Rather than opening up a fresh line of attack he repeated his demand for the PM to eat humble pie. Brown (unruffled): ‘I’ve already said it’s our duty to get British workers the skills they need.’ No apology, of course. So why ask for it twice over? Dave often sends good money after bad like this. His approach lacks variety or surprise and he never breaks things up by withholding two or three questions until later in the session. If nothing else this would discomfort the PM and make him wonder what incoming tomatoes were about to splat him in the face.

Tory strategists seem to have decided that the way to deal with the ‘do-nothing’ slur is to ‘do-nothing’ about it. Big mistake. Inaccurate and repetitive it may be but in the real world ‘do-nothing’ could inflict serious damage. Oft-repeated lies, like urban myths, can easily worm their way into the public consciousness. Neglecting them gives them encouragement.

Nick Clegg hassled the prime minister over tax evasion and the fiscal arrangements that allow multinationals to avoid paying great wodges of UK tax. Brown answered smiling his real smile (not the robot TV version) as he teased Clegg over ‘a chief donor to Liberal party who was a tax evader and who never returned the money!’

With Gordon grinning and Dave stalling it was left to the Tory backbenches to pound the PM into the rubble. How did they do? About as well as a tickling stick. Ann Milton mumbled some tedious query about Guildford’s new planning laws: fascinating for Surrey and frustrating for everyone else. Next up, Peter Bottomley. He may be a cunning old dog but he’s far too decent to inflict a killer blow. His question was like a piece of origami, crafted with two pairs of subtle inner harmonies. He asked if the PM would be more likely to credit past mistakes or future fears for his low poll ratings and for the apprehensive looks on his backbenchers’ faces. Beautifully put and Brown proceeded to vandalise it with the sole of his boot. Sir John Butterfill got so hopelessly lost in the detail of his question about Guernsey and the Chelsea Building Society that the Speaker had to cut him off. Finally, Brian Binley stood up and started yelling at the Prime Minister about soaring local taxes and a retired council employee with a £97k pension. Good stuff! But the PM had his answer, ‘I should remind him he’s talking about a Conservative council.’

I scored this as a moderate Tory defeat. Brown left the session smiling.