Ms Harman had just one political weapon today – the leaked report that the budget would cost 1.3m public sector jobs – and she deployed it with little guile and maximum predictability. Cameron dodged the question altogether and shifted attention to an OBR prediction that 2.5m more private sector jobs will be created. Hattie tried slicing the cake different ways. Did the leak originate from the Treasury? How much would be lost in tax receipts? How expensive would the extra benefits be? Cameron shimmied and ducked and stuck to his original tactics. He was clearly expecting his opponent to lose the game on his behalf. She didn’t let him down. He then produced a little treat from his satchel.
He revealed that Hattie’s own department had awarded itself a multi-million pound refit including ‘the stupidest piece of spending they undertook…’ Hattie was alreading grinning and shaking her head at this. ‘It’s not true,’ she said. Cameron: ‘I’m reading from her own staff magazine.’ Her department had purchased two ‘meeting pods’, each costing £74,000, which offered ‘a 21st century space of quality air and light where we can relax and renew.’ The farce calls for a denouement. If Labour ministers hold these facilities in such high regard they should be invited to buy them back for their party HQ. Four front-line nurses could be recruited from the savings.
Backbench Labour MPs tried to embarrass Cameron further over the predicted job losses. But all talk of spending cuts draws the same response from the PM. ‘It would have been just as bad under Labour’. He accused them of being ‘pathetic’ for pretending they hadn’t planned to cut at all.
Time and again he insisted that the private sector will fill the gap. For now, this will do. But he’s relying on literally millions of new jobs in commerce and industry. If the figures prove false then his tactics today may return to haunt him. And Cameron is already practising habits pioneered by his unlamented predecessor. He accuses his questioner of failing to grasp rudimentary facts and he blithely insists that every scrap of bad news will be outweighed by oodles of good news somewhere else. It didn’t take long for the old politics to return.
His best moment came in response to Meg Munn (Lab) who complained that the Coalition had betrayed the employees of Sheffield Forgemasters. ‘The staff weren’t seeking to line their own pockets,’ she said, ‘but to ensure the future of the company.’ Whip-smart Mr Cameron reminded her that he hopes to reform the Post Office along the same lines and invited her to register her approval for this business model. Ms Munn kept mum. ‘I’ll take that as a yes,’ said Cameron.