Lloyd Evans

Harman lays out Labour’s election strategy in PMQs

Harman lays out Labour's election strategy in PMQs
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The B-team were back today. With Gordon Brown abroad on Superman duty it was left to Hague and Harman to slug it out. Harman was as useless as ever, unsteady, inarticulate, hectoring, self-satisfied. Rather than engage with the debate she ducks incoming fire and replies with a prepared weapon. Yet again we heard that the Tories would ‘do nothing’, that they opposed the fiscal stimulus, they fought the VAT cut and so forth. Her killjoy mannerisms suggest a head-girl scolding trouble-makers for  pillow-fighting after lights out. But she looked less obviously uncomfortable at the despatch box today. Hague, by contrast, seemed too relaxed, almost detached. Instead of taking his Lamborghini wit out for a spin he just parked it in the garage.

His sole tactic – to expose the rift between the government and the Bank of England over the fiscal stimulus – failed to put Hattie under serious pressure. Thrice he tried to get her to answer and thrice she dodged the question. She got away with it because sins of omission don’t come across on telly. They certainly never make the evening news and it’s a pity Hague hadn’t contrived a more dangerous ambush for her. Instead he amused himself with quips at Labour’s expense. He mocked the PM and Peter Mandelson for their forthcoming trips to Chile and Brazil, respectively. ‘The business secretary should be implementing schemes not unpacking his Speedos on a South American beach.’

Harman’s attempts to change the subject from the fiscal stimulus to inheritance tax brought a flash of caustic merriment from Hague. ‘The question was about the Governor of Bank of England,’ he reminded her, ‘though I know inheritance may preoccupy the niece of the Countess of Longford.’

Vince Cable had some colourful language up his sleeve. ‘The Bank of England’s governor has sent his tanks down the Mall, seized control of economy and put the government under house arrest.’ Most backbench questions focussed on local issues but in the dying minutes Justine Greening raised the issue of further education funding which provoked a furious response from Harman. When Labour came to power, she claimed, the budget for higher education had been, ‘zero pounds’. Rather incredibly she suggested that the current £600 million budget would be wiped out if the Tories returned to office.

This was a B-grade PMQs but it was also highly illuminating. Advertently or not, Hattie today laid out the whole of Labour’s election strategy. Core message: ‘We help, they do nothing’. There’ll be no space for detail - just a campaign of attrition on the twin fronts of taxation and spending. Endless scare stories will spread the myth that the Tories will slash all public service budgets to nothing. And every tax question will be parried with the claim that Conservative IHT reform will be targeted at the rich few. This tactic can be articulated in various ways. Today Hattie road-tested a couple of phrases, ‘£2bn squandered’ and ‘a £200,000 tax cut for three thousand.’ She also aired a catch-all slogan - ‘millionaires' manifesto’ - which we’re bound to hear more of in the coming year.

So there it is. Labour’s pitch to the voters is crude, narrow, wilfully inaccurate and bound to appeal most to the most dimwitted. It, therefore, has a high chance of electoral success, and Tory generals would do well to find an equally unsophisticated means of returning fire.