Lloyd Evans

PMQs of the undead

PMQs of the undead
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Usually it’s the war-dead who overshadow the start of PMQs. Today it was the undead. Brown is back and if the Labour rebels really believed his promise to ‘listen’ their trust seems to have been misplaced. This was the Brown of old, the unbudgeable slab of granite, the obsessive numerologist casting statistics in all directions like a witchdoctor sprinkling charms to ward off evil. Two planted questions gave him a chance to bring up the ‘ten percent reduction’ allegedly referred to by Andrew Lansley in this morning’s interview about Tory spending plans.

Brown seemed to be cruising at this point. With his statement on electoral reform in his pocket he had the air of a statesman with a comfortable majority rather than a panicky has-been who saved himself from defenestration two days ago by slamming the window shut at the last minute. Cameron stood up with a ready-made quip. ‘How pleased I am to see the prime minister in his place.’ Brown shrank physically at this, staring obsessively into his lap like an anxious schoolboy trying to magic himself out of danger.

Cameron explained that the Tories support the existing electoral system, ‘because you can throw out weak, tired and discredited governments.’ He asked if the prime minister planned to hold a referendum before the general election. Brown had flicked the switch by now, restoring himself to Gladstonian mode. He welcomed Cameron’s decision to discuss the issues and added sorrowfully, ‘there seems to be an element of self-interest in the way he is discussing policy.’ This brought the house down. Even the Tory whips joined in. So did the Speaker. ‘Tew noisy!’ he bawled which prompted more catcalls. He swivelled his massive pink trunk towards the Tories. ‘And I’m not getting much help from the chief whup!’

Cameron poured scorn on Brown’s apparent opportunism, calling it an attempt ‘to fix the rules before the next election.’ Brown flayed uselessly with the accusation that the Tories planned 10 percent cuts across the board and Cameron was withering in reply, calling Brown’s government ‘the worst in history’ whose ultimate legacy would be the mismanagement of public finances. This cheered Brown up. He unsheathed the most perilous weapon in his armoury. Tedium. ‘Let me read the figures for public spending,’ he said and reeled them off from memory. By the time he’d finished, my keyboard was smoking. Brown can hype faster than I can type. As an ultra-boring finale he repeated his mantra that the Tories’ only policy is to do nothing. This was more a skirmish than a full-blooded battle and I have a suspicion Cameron was expecting to face the Postman today not the Presbyterian.

Clegg had a pop at Brown but seemed tired and shell-shocked after last week’s election results. ‘People are angry and frustrated,’ he said looking angry and frustrated. His chosen topic – council housing – is hardly the talk of the town and he lacked a decent soundbite. After several excellent weeks, Clegg flopped.

The only star from the back benches was Mark Harper, Con, Forest of Dean. With great rapidity and forensic skill he revealed that Labour had broken a specific promise to fund regional authorities in his area. Brown had no answer but repeated the old jibe about Tory cuts. Harper is one to watch.

Cameron’s real problem is that the PM is now so weak he could barely put up a fight against Andy Pandy. How do you discredit an opponent whose friends can’t credit him? How do you finish off a man who is finished? How do you ridicule ridicule itself? He mustn’t make it look too easy and Cameron struck the right notes today. Anger, impatience, mockery – and a bit more anger. Exactly.