Cameron began by trying to elicit answers about the appalling mortality rates at Staffordshire Hospital. Brown adopted his cenotaph grimace and reeled off a list of inquiries, investigations and disciplinary sanctions which parked the issue in neutral territory. Then Cameron turned to the happier ground of the cabinet blood-bath. He asked Brown to repeat this statement before the house. ‘I would never instruct anybody to do anything other than support my chancellor’.
Howls and jeers erupted on all sides as Brown, predictably enough, protested that Cameron had raised the issue of personality because he couldn’t make up his mind about policy. Cameron tried again to shame Brown into admitting complicity in the Darling smears. Again Brown refused and Cameron got so heated that he pitched forward like a tree in a gale and blurted out the unparliamentary word ‘you’ twice. By now members were getting so over-wrought that the Speaker decided to shock them into silence by making a joke. ‘Any noisier and I’ll have to call a helpline,’ he said.
Brown then tried to drag George Osborne into view and give him a light duffing-up. ‘I’d rather be defending my chancellor,’ he shouted at Cameron, ‘than be in his position defending his.’ Cameron replied that if Darling had been right, ‘why was he trying to get rid of him?’ He ended with the best question of the debate. How come per capita GDP is now lower than in 1997? The PM is good with statistics, as we all know. Numbers are putty in his hands and he duly bent this one out of shape and asserted that the opposite is the case. Per capita GDP is higher than it ever has been. This seemed to demonstrate to him, if to nobody else, that he is a genius.
Nick Clegg stood up with an air of petty-fogging impatience. He sounded like the secretary of the Bridge Club breaking the bad news that the chairman hasn’t paid his subs for six weeks. The PM, he said, claims the badge of ‘fairness’ whilst presiding over a tax system that favours the rich over the poor. Brown responded with avuncular condescension. ‘I hoped he’d do better than that.’ He then reminded everyone that six million UK citizens waste hours of their time filling in his tax credit application forms.
Then he decided to change the subject by deploying the brilliant, but little known, ‘Lichtenstein manouevre’. Very soon, he told us, a whopping one billion pounds will be recovered from the Alpine tax-haven thanks to an agreement signed by the chancellor. This cunning tactic works in two ways. It impresses the house. And it’s impossible to verify. Statistics prove that by the time the average researcher has found Lichtenstein on the map he’s forgotten why he was looking for it.
The backbench plants revealed few roses today. Stephen Pound made an elegant and witty dig at Cameron. He urged the PM to introduce ‘a Robin Hood tax’ and added archly, ‘we in this house know who speaks for the Sheriff of Nottingham.’
All in all, this was a shambolic and predictable PMQs. Cameron was hampered, paradoxically, by the government’s disarray. Chaos in Downing Street raises expectations and the Tory faithful must have tuned in at noon hoping they were about to see Labour’s routed armies being finished off once and for all. Cameron did well enough but he doesn’t yet carry the air of a conquering general.