Lloyd Evans

PMQs or St Paul’s protest?

PMQs or St Paul's protest?
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The Hair Shirt walked abroad at PMQs today. Those attending the Square Mile sleepover finally forced their agenda into the political mainstream. The question is, what is their agenda? A protest that doesn’t define its programme allows others to define it for them. And today both party leaders tried to harness the anti-capitalist spirit for their own political ends. Ed Miliband claimed to be scandalised by a recent, and arguable, surge of 49 per cent in directors’ pay. He demanded that the PM take action.

Cameron seemed equally appalled at the news that fat cats have been getting fatter during the recession. But he wasn’t taking any sermons from Labour. He berated Miliband for belonging to a government that ‘failed to regulate banks for 13 years,’ and whose revenue system taxed City bosses less than their cleaners. ‘This is the party that claimed to be intensely relaxed about getting filthy rich,’ said Cameron, his pink jowls shaking self-righteously. ‘He’s got a bit of a nerve to lecture us.’

Although Cameron didn’t quite take a vow of poverty on the floor of the House, he seemed delighted to be able to quote the Archbishop of Canterbury. ‘Dr Williams spoke for the whole country,’ the Prime /Minister intoned glowingly, ‘when he said it is unacceptable, in a period of difficulty, for people at the top not to show responsibility.’ The Archbishop rarely features in our day-to-day politics like this. He has just two constitutional functions. Plonking the crown on a new sovereign’s head. And embracing anti-toff sentiment at times of strife in order to render it harmless.

And Cameron, having activated this latter role, built on it by outlining the rest of his anti-rich programme. The new bank levy, he said, has raised £millions. The taxes imposed on non-doms have been bumped up. And he’s proud to have compelled the secretive Swiss and the leeches of Liechtenstein to disclose how much foreign gold lurks in their vaults. He was beginning to sound like a die-hard Bolshevik when Ed Miliband tripped him with a simple question about boardroom transparency. It has been suggested that top corporations should publish the ratio between average salaries and executive salaries. The measure was due to be implemented by this January. Would it be? asked Miliband  

‘Er, we’re consulting,’ said Cameron, amidst a barrage of jeers, ‘on a series of steps which we’ll be bringing in …’ 

Moments later, Simon Hughes came to the PM’s rescue. He asked Cameron about the need to ‘transfer the power over salaries from the board-room to the shareholders.’ This was music to the ears of the Tory party’s new pay-gap king. ‘More accountability is important,’ agreed Cameron, ‘and strengthening the hand of shareholders.’ In addition, he wanted a new species of non-executive director to take charge of our businesses. ‘Not the usual sort of men patting each other’s backs,’ he explained, looking exactly like the sort of man whose back is patted so regularly that he’s developing a bunion between his shoulders. ‘And we need more women in Britain’s board rooms,’ he went on, beaming smugly, ‘I think they’d be a thoroughly good influence!’

Encouraged by this communitarian talk, the Green party’s lone voice in parliament, Caroline Lucas, urged the prime minister to press for a ‘Robin Hood tax’ at tomorrow’s G8 summit. Every penny raised, she said, should be ‘earmarked’ for combating climate change. But this was a step too far for the People’s Champion. ‘We mustn’t allow other nations to use the tax,’ said Cameron, ‘as an excuse for getting off their aid commitments.’ However, in a further nod to the anti-capitalists, he admitted the Robin Hood tax had ‘widespread support.’

So this is what the Square Mile snooze-in has achieved. The authorities of St Paul’s are in turmoil. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been co-opted as a government advocate. And our multi-millionaire Prime Minister is posing as a friend of office cleaners. Is that what the protestors wanted?

The Tories, not the anti-capitalists, are making all the political capital here.