Lloyd Evans

Cameron’s call for change leaves Brown rattled

Cameron's call for change leaves Brown rattled
Text settings

The Speaker presided over his own memorial service today. The PM led the tributes by reminding us that Michael Martin had spent thirty years living off the rest of us – sorry – contributing to public life. Cameron said thanks for the help he received as a parliamentary fresher in 2001. Even wobbly-jowled Tory shiresman Nicholas Winterton declared that Martin had been "kind and caring". It sounded as if he was talking about a spaniel.

The main punch-up was much brisker than usual. Someone in Central Office has been playing with a stopwatch and has noticed that Brown only listens to the first five seconds of any question. That’s how long it takes him to decide what to answer. So if the question lasts less than five seconds he’s in trouble. Cameron exploited this weakness and scored several quick and easy goals. He asked Brown what he meant by suggesting that "a general election would cause chaos." Brown replied without thinking that he was referring to the chaos of a Conservative government. Cameron pounced. "The first admission that he thinks he’s going to lose. Have another go at a better answer." Realising his blunder, Brown took a bit more time. He flannelled in a lofty key. Mistakes had been made, he lamented, by all parties. The house needed to show some humility. "We have a duty to sort the problem out," he went on, beginning to twirl in circles like a one-legged duck, "and the only way to sort out the system is to go on and sort out the system."

This bogus sanctity wouldn’t do. "Humility?" said Cameron. "The best way to show humility is to ask the people who put us here." He lobbed a prepared grenade. "How can the answer to a crisis in democracy be an unelected Prime Minister?" When things get personal, Brown always accuses his attacker of ignoring the real question. "At no point does he want to address policy issues." Cameron was prepared for this too. "How better to address the issues than in a general election?" He mocked Brown’s 2007 promise to bring trust and integrity back to our politics. "That died," he said, breaking into verse, "with Damien McBride." He then broke into a sweat as he moved to his suppertime soundbite, the one we’ll see on the news tonight. "He calls elections chaos. I call them change. Why can’t we have one?" A punchy statement but Cameron’s face twisted with anger as he delivered it. That look of cold, thin-lipped fury isn’t quite what he wants the nation to digest with its evening meal.

A thorough, if not a thoroughbred, victory for Cameron today, but he should curb his impatience better.

Nick Clegg was once again calm and authoritative, and he had the courage to salute the man he’d helped prise from his seat. "Despite our differences in recent days, I’d like to thank you for the immensely dignified way in which you made your statement yesterday." Labour MPs yelled furiously and with ghostly graciousness the Speaker told them to button it and let Clegg have his say. The LibDem leader called for wholesale reform to "a system that will always breed arrogance and secrecy." This isn’t a bandwagon but an issue he’s been pressing ever since taking over his party.

At the close, Brown-watchers enjoyed a classic example of his most duplicitous habit. He avoids a tricky question by pretending he’s been asked an easier question on the same topic. Brooks Newmark: "What will the government do about declining rates of rape conviction?" Brown: "One of the reasons rape convictions have gone up is DNA." Put that in the treasure-chest.