Today she tried to get David Cameron to admit he’s set aside no money for restoring the link between earnings and pensions. With a faint ripple of condescension, Cameron replied the issue was a tad more complicated than little Hattie had realised. ‘Perhaps I could recommend the budget Red Book. Although in her case I suspect it’s the unread book,’ he twinkled.
Hattie persisted. Convinced she’d unmasked some devious record-keeping at the Treasury she accused Cameron of ‘not being straight with the people.’ Cameron patted aside three of these attempts to ruffle his cool exterior and suavely assured her that his government had introduced a ‘triple-lock’ on the pensions pot. ‘Three-nil’ shouted a Tory heckler.
And it was at this point my admiration blossomed. Because good old Hattie laughed along with the rest of the house and proceeded to plug away at the same point for a fourth time. Dispensing with vanity for a moment – for she is still certainly attractive – she placed her thick black specs onto her conk and hunched determinedly over her briefing papers to find the killer-fact. And just then, for a fleeting second, she evoked the vanished shade of Maggie herself. ‘Page 41,’ she yelled at the PM having found the detail. ‘Table 2 (i), Item 48. Basic state pension. Triple guarantee. Money set aside, zero.’ It seemed she’d scored a hit.
Then she moved to another key issue. ‘Families with income less than 40,000 will still get their tax credit. Can he confirm this?’ Cameron launched into his reply, ‘What we are doing is making sure,’ but he was drowned out by laughter. That laughter was significant. It was the laughter that the Tories loved to direct at Gordon Brown when he failed to give an answer. Hattie had made her point. And Cameron attracted more of this derision when Karen Buck (Lab) asked another of those tricky quickie questions. ‘Will there be fewer police officers at the end of this parliament? Cameron shifted fast over the quicksand. ‘What we want to do,’ he began and the heavy footwork prompted the house’s scorn.
This is not to disparage Cameron. He sailed through today’s session. And it’s still a relief, and even a joy, to see a confident and capable spirit at the dispatch box, a leader who relishes ‘the thunder and the sunshine’ of a robust exchange of views. But when the honeymoon ends he’s bound to be criticised for indulging in Brownian Motion and avoiding straight questions. And that’s not the only Brownite manouevre he’s been spotted road-testing.
Angus Roberts, the SNP member whose entire body looks like a cauliflower ear, complained that the emergency budget had saddled Scotland’s NHS with £26m in new overheads. Ah but, said Cameron, our NI proposals will save the NHS money in Scotland. Ooh. That sounded horribly familiar. Calling a minus a plus was one of Brown’s favourite card-tricks.
Elsewhere Cameron promised to ‘bear down’ on the costs of replacing Trident and hinted that paying salaries to absentee Sinn Fein MPs was beginning to try his patience. At the other end of the common sense spectrum, he was asked to institute a National Anti-Slavery Day. This he promised to do with a degree of urgency that will baffle many. Naming ‘a Day’ after an iniquity can hardly diminish its effects, so if we must enslave ourselves to this barmy gesture let it fall in a week’s time on June 31st.