‘In the last recession,’ Brown flailed wildly, ‘there was no help available for the unemployed.’ Ignoring this slice of fantasy, Cameron unleashed his own half-truth. ‘We get a lecture in competence,’ he said, (though no one had heard Brown mention competence), ‘from a government that couldn’t stop Fred - sorry Sir Fred because the Prime Minister knighted him for services to banking – from walking off with a pension worth £60,000 a month.’ Tories cheered.
The two pugilists then traded quotations, or rather noises-off, from Angela Merkel, James Purnell and George Osborne. Neither quite landed a killer blow until Cameron turned to Brown’s’ interview in yesterday’s Guardian where the PM had derided the ‘who-said-what-when’ tactic as ‘far too divisive to meet the problems of the country.’ Cheered on by noisy colleagues Cameron followed up with a direct blow. ‘What a complete phoney!’ No one raised any objection to this but the Speaker stood up, flushing and giggling, and with a strange show of deference requested a retraction. Cameron obliged, and Brown finished the fight by lobbing an old class-war grenade: Conservatives would cut inheritance tax for ‘the country’s top 3000 estates.’
Nick 'Anti-climax' Clegg overcame his bottom-of-the bill status and used the Staffordshire hospital debacle to good effect. ‘Scrap the mad targets!’ he commanded after cogently analysing a management system which was so in thrall to Whitehall quotas that doctors were ordered away from the sweating cots of the mortally ill to bandage fingers and give out aspirin in Casualty.
In the Beeb’s post-match analysis, Nick Robinson was sure Cameron had ‘blown it’ with his ‘phoney’ moment and he predicted sleepless nights for the Tory leader when he recalled that in the week of the steepest jobless rise in history he’d been forced into a retraction at PMQs. I scanned it quite differently. Parliamentary protocol seems so stuffy and arcane that anyone who defies it becomes an instant folk hero. And his language may be inadmissible in the house but in the country it’s just banter. I’d put ‘complete phoney’ up there with Blair’s famous Major-mashing, ‘weak, weak, weak.’ It did exactly what the opposition leader wants – it established an instant connection between the politician's head and the voter’s heart. The Speaker’s intervention will only propel it up the news agenda. A pretty good day for Dave although Brown seemed full of misplaced gusto as well. Mind you he is making policy in an empty bunker, where the smallest murmur of approval must resound like the roar of thousands.