‘This trade union,’ said Cameron, ‘can sense weakness and they see weakness in this prime minister and this government.’ Brown got huffy – but not very. He accused Cameron of cynically trying to drag the strike ‘into the political arena,’ It’s already there, said Cameron, ‘not least because the communications workers pay half his bills.’ He used all six of his questions trying to embarrass an unembarrassable prime minister over this strike, and as a finale he drew an image of Brown ‘sitting in his bunker unable to decide what biscuits he’s going to eat.’ On this rather obvious metaphor he sat down. Brown saw his chance and came back with a strong ending which featured his new soundbite. The Tories, he said, were ‘wrong on recession and wrong on recovery.’ Slogan-watchers will appreciate this new verbal deployment. It’s brief, it’s alliterative, it contains repetition – which makes it memorable – and it’s untrue. Pretty much a perfect soundbite. And it certainly shut up the somnolent Tories. Where were they today? The government-in-waiting has nodded off in the take-off lounge.
Afterwards on the Beeb Nick Robinson explained Dave’s strategy. It was brilliantly cunning, apparently, and established a link in people’s minds between Brown and the posties’ decision to down tools and brew up. Right. But Brown is in charge of the country so any countrywide strike will automatically be linked to him. Dave’s plan may delight Westminster wonks but to the rest of us it looked like a squandered chance.
Clegg did better. He extracted more juice from two questions than Dave got from six. The banking crisis, he said, had made the banks worse not better. They were ‘operating like a cartel, underwritten by tax-payers,’ and were ‘paying themselves big bonuses while people lose their jobs.’ He urged Brown to ‘break them up.’ Brown replied, quite reasonably, that separating retail and investment banking wasn’t a complete solution. Lehmans, which had no retail arm, hadn’t been prevented from going bust. And he assured us that the bailout would be repaid eventually. ‘We are determined to make money out of this.’ Perhaps Goldman Sachs will give the chancellor a bonus.
With the Tories unable or unwilling to hammer the PM, it was left to Labour’s backbenchers to field easy questions for their leader. One knackered old stooge invited Brown to congratulate the NHS on its marvellous efforts to prepare swine flu jabs. Brown happily praised himself for being ‘ahead of the world’ (a phrase he used three times) on this microbiotic panic.
Jacqui Smith stood up looking plump and pleased with herself and described her diary engagements since being squeezed out of the Home Office. She’s been staying in her ‘second home’, apparently, and visiting Surestart schemes nearby. Without a blush, Gordon thanked her ‘ten years’ hard work establishing this programme for nippers. There was barely a murmur of protest. It seemed incredible that the prime minister should use parliamentary time to congratulate a disgraced home secretary for founding kindergartens when most of us believe this smug professional nag should be in court charged with £100,000 worth of fraud.
Another of the sisterhood, Lynne Jones, invited Gordon to fret publicly about carbon. He duly obliged and made some ominous statements about the forthcoming festival of climate-anxiety in Copenhagen. This is an event he’s clearly looking forward to. His fellow world leaders are a much more congenial bunch than the grouches in parliament. World-bestriding statesmen know how to treat a chap like Brown. They pat him on the back and tousle his head and give him a Class Monitor prize to put on his desk. Brown seemed to be having fun today in world-saviour mode. And he was right about the Tories for once. They did nothing.