Lloyd Evans

Tornado in the chamber

Tornado in the chamber
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It was like a volcano going off. At PMQs today Cameron was calmly dissecting the prime minister’s underfunding of the Afghan war when he quoted two former defence chiefs who’d called Brown ‘disingenuous’ and ‘a dissembler’. Then someone shouted, ‘they’re Tories!’ Cameron lost control. Instantly, completely. His temper just went. White in the face, he leaned his flexed torso across the dispatch box, hammering at it so hard that it nearly disintegrated. ‘Is that it?’ he yelled. ‘Is that what this tribalist and divisive government thinks of those who serve this country!?’

Rippling with anger he demanded that the PM dissociate himself from his backbenchers’ smears. Brown stood up, in a pointedly indolent fashion, and made a plea for consensus. ‘Let’s find where the common ground is rather than division.’ Cameron wasn’t having that. He was still in mid-fit. ‘His MPs,’ he bellowed, still trying to jab a hole in the dispatch box, ‘his MPs have questioned the integrity of people who are essays in bravery. He must dissociate himself from those disgraceful remarks.’

But the PM, whose calmness suggested that he was enjoying Cameron’s hysterics, turned the integrity issue to his advantage. ‘I will not take lectures from a man who won’t answer one question about Lord Ashcroft.’ He added that defence spending had fallen by 30 percent under the Tories. By now Cameron’s mood had settled and he jokingly suggested those cuts were the result of the Tories’ having won the Cold War. The noisy and rather tense chamber collapsed into hilarity at that. ‘And we all know who was wearing the CND badges,’ quipped Cameron. Brown replied that Cameron was ‘still at school at the time,’ a subtle dig at his inexperience. The PM raised Lord Ashcroft again and finished with his favourite rhetorical trinity, ‘wrong, wrong, wrong.’

After the rage and the laughter came Nick Clegg. Our prisons, he intoned earnestly, have become colleges of crime. Repeat offending costs us £10bn a year. An unruffled Brown replied that re-offending was ‘down by 25 percent’ and he claimed that Labour had created ‘an extra 20,000 prison places’. If crime is falling it seems extravagant to build a so much house room for all these new lags. Clegg didn’t pick up on that contradiction, and an air of thumb-twiddling torpor settled over both sides during the backbench questions. It was as if the election was done and dusted. Then up popped John Robertson (Lab) to boost the Conservatives. He was worried that the Tories may scrap the two aircraft carriers planned for his Glasgow constituency. Did the PM share his anxiety that Slasher George might ‘look for break clauses in existing contracts’? It was nice of Mr Robertson to concede victory to the Tories at this point and not to be outdone Ann Winterton (Con) swung her weight behind Labour. She urged the prime minister not to slap VAT on clothes after the election. Brown accepted her kind offer to talk about VAT and reminded everyone that the Tories are serial abusers of this revenue mechanism. Daft tactics, I must say. Last time Mrs W stood up at PMQs she proclaimed her disbelief in climate change. Now she salutes a Labour victory. It seems amazing that the Tory whips can’t organize their own backbenchers a few weeks before an election. Perhaps they’ve given up too.

This wasn’t a good PMQs for Cameron.  The faithful will welcome his flare-up but it could easily alarm neutrals. It had an unchecked and virulent quality which looked far from statesmanlike. And with the Tories busy painting Brown as a raging psycho this was a peculiar moment for Dave to out-Herod Herod and unleash his inner hooligan in the house. Having seen Cameron today I wouldn’t trust him with a box of fireworks let alone the nuclear button.

And Brown played a shrewd and decidedly dirty game. He bent the rules and repeatedly changed the subject so that he could bring up Lord Ashcroft. Purists may be appalled but they shouldn’t be surprised. Clobber the opposition where they’re weakest. That’s the only rule that matters to Brown. Lord Ashcroft is a gift to Labour. He weaponises one of their deadliest missiles. A fatcat peer who plays games over his tax status conjures up the dread genie of sleaze. The Conservatives were slotted by the spectre of corruption in 1997. It has made them unelectable for a decade (and counting). Now it’s back.