It seemed all the more relevant because his theme was that he is an honest chap. “Candid”, he said. He quoted his father telling him "always be honest". And then he claimed that the choice at the next election was between a party of cuts and one of investment. So when my turn came to ask a question, I addressed what is - in my view - one of the worst falsehoods he is peddling.
Labour's planned cuts were so well hidden in the Budget that no Fleet St newspaper either spotted them on the day or spoke about them subsequently. Yet the Institute for Fiscal Studies did pick up on them, and I blogged their discovery at the time. To remind CoffeeHousers: Brown had Darling mislead the House in claiming spending would rise by an average 0.7pc a year in 2011-14. The truth is that it will be cut by an average 2.3pc a year over this period - actual cuts of £22bn a year. Brown has never admitted this, nor have the Tories raised it - fearful of being asked what they would cut. As a result, the public is being kept in the dark about the sharpest spending contraction in UK postwar history.
How do you pose a question like this? If you generalise, you give him a get out clause. So I decided to give it to him in detail, thus:
"Not at all" he replied, “Public spending is rising every year. Let’s be absolutely clear about that” – and went on about spending today. “And in every year in the future of public spending it will continue to rise." Predictably, he then moved on to those wicked Tory cuts. “And I think you yourself wrote an article only a few days ago saying that if the Conservatives cut public spending their plan was to cut public spending by 10%”.“
“Prime Minister, you say you’re being candid with us today. And you are quoting your father saying, 'Always be honest'. Why then haven’t you mentioned the cuts that you plan after the election? The Budget proposed what the Institute for Fiscal Studies claims is 2.3% cuts year after year after year. A cumulative 7% over three years, across government. This is a hugely significant fact that will directly affect public services. All I want to ask you, Prime Minister – and please “always be honest” – is the IFS right? Do you plan 2.3% cuts in public services for three consecutive years?”
The sheer scope of Brown’s mendacity can overwhelm a guy. He is attacking his own Budget: Labour plans 7% cuts but because the Tories would spare health (and not spend more than he plans to) they would cut 10%. So I shouted out at him: “Your budget. Your cuts.”
But what No.10 do is to have a chap with a microphone on a rod, who takes it away from you when the Dear Leader has had enough of your question. Only Brown has a mike, so his comments are always heard. He continued, saying that under the "Tory cuts," “schools close, hospitals close”. But this is what would happen under his cuts. If he thinks that the cuts he has proposed in Budget 09 would lead to such closures, it is a matter of national importance.
He then moved to take another question. So I started shouting out again: “No, Prime Minister, this is an important point. It’s in the national interest to discuss it.” He then tried to flag me down. “I know you want a second point like everybody else, but please.” But I was making such noise that the No10 microphone guy came back to me. “You misled us in the first question. This is important to get accurate.” Brown kept trying to shut me up, waving his hand: “Please, please. I’ve said…” Soon enough the mike guy worked out what was going on, and skidaddled. I was mute.
The point I was trying to make is toxic to Brown's election narrative. He wants it to be spending v cuts, whereas the truth is that - going off their current plans - each party would impose identical cuts. The only difference is where in public services the axe falls: debt interest, Brown’s parting gift to this nation, is not discretionary. Brown’s strategy is to hope Tories will be honest about their cuts, while he covers his up.
About five years ago, when I was at The Business, one of Brown's aides told me that no one would take me seriously as a journalist because I was so "off beam" writing about Brown's destructive economic agenda while others were praising him to high heaven. I did feel a bit Speaker's Corner today, shouting out at him over the coming radical spending crunch that is simply not an issue, anywhere, because Brown has done such a good job putting the media off the scent. In fact, I doubt if anyone watching this exchange would have known what I was getting worked up about. So to this extent, my intervention was a failure.
We spend some time here in Coffee House tearing up figures, and exposing Brown's deceptions. Quite a few of you rightly ask, "Why don't you journalists do your job and raise it with him?" Well. all I can say is that today, in what may well have been my last chance, I did try. And I can't say I got very far.
P.S. Someone has kindly captured my exchange with Brown on YouTube, with the caption that I "nailed" him - which, as you can see for yourselves, is not quite the case. But here's the footage of me trying to: