As a PMQs geek (for my sins) I rarely watch a session of the weekly without being able to take something away from it – an insight into the thinking of a senior politician perhaps or a new issue bubbling away under the surface – but today that’s tricky. This wasn’t a PMQs entirely without merit, but it was pretty close.
The atmosphere in the chamber – as has become customary in recent weeks – was poisonous. The Labour benches cheered and jeered from the start, and were matched in ugly behaviour by their counterparts on the government benches. The shadow chancellor sought to stoke tensions by adopting the “flatlining” gesture that he has come to adopt – like an exciteable cricket umpire – ever more frequently as the economy rattles around at the lower end of what could be considered “growth”. In parliamentary terms it’s an effective tactic. Cameron – who seems to have something of an obsession with Balls – never ceases to fall for the goading. Yet whilst Cameron’s reaction is unattractive, so is the provocation that brings it. Recently a friend, who otherwise has little interest in politics, told me they found Ed Balls “smug”. When he smiles as he goads the PM over bad economic news, he should think about how he comes across too.
At times it became difficult to remember which one of these men was the PM and which was the opposition leader, as both men sought to define themselves against the status quo – tricky ground indeed for a Tory leader (or a former cabinet minister) to claim comfortably. It was as if there were two opposition leaders, both battling for public approval, but neither offering anything that could be seen as clear leadership. Both men were playing to the gallery – but neither seemed entirely sure of what the gallery wanted to hear. There was bombast aplenty, but attempts at knockout blows seemed to serially misfire.
Despite the poor quality of debate – perhaps because of it – we did get some absolute clangers from the Prime Minister. He talked about the global nature of the financial crisis (something he readily mock Gordon Brown for). He quoted Rowan Williams on greed in society (which shows that he’s aware of the potency of attacks that he’s out of touch). And for the piece de resistance, as Miliband sat down he attacked him for hiring a tax exile to run his election campaign. The irony of this statement, coming from the bank who happily took Ashcroft’s coin, was too much for some on the Labour benches, whose guffaws weren’t quite drowned out by the Tory cheers. A similar – although more feminine – guffaw was audible when Cameron stated that he wanted to see more women in britain’s boardrooms.
The Prime Minister is a man who is aware of his weaknesses – the difficulty he’s going to face is that his unsubtle attempts to address them inspire laughter, rather than fear, in his opponents.
Perhaps I was wrong…perhaps there’s a valuable lesson to come out of this PMQs after all.