It’s been a running commentary on David Cameron’s performances at PMQs that he’s not keen on actually answering any of the questions. But I never expected him to actually say out loud – to the Commons – that he’s refusing to answer a question. That fit of angry pique came near the end of a bruising PMQs, and was prompted by Chris Bryant, whoCameron finds nearly as annoying as Ed Balls, and someone who the Tory benches love to hurl distasteful and unpleasant heckles at in the chamber…
Bryant asked – quite rightly – why text messages between the PM and Rebekah Brooks had been kept from the Leveson Enquiry. Cameron – clearly annoyed at accusations that Bryant has thrown at him in the past – refused, point blank, to answer the question. The Prime Minister said – and I think it’s worth being clear about this – that he would no longer answer a member’s questions at PMQs. That really is quite remarkable. Perhaps in the future we will look back on today’s outburst and think of it as the time when Cameron lost his temper once and for all. It could and should have been handled with a smile and a joke. Instead the conspiracy theorists will be hunting for those text messages with more vigour than before.
Nice work Dave. Putting out a fire by pouring petrol on it. His answer could hardly have been less respectful if he had whipped his chap out.
But Cameron’s loss of perspective shouldn’t overshadow what was a more than competent performance from Ed Miliband. The Labour leader’s confidence at PMQs has improved massively over 2012, and his strong conference season has clearly done him good. The first few questions were a little forced – trying to mention unemployment stats without really talking about them. But when he turned his fire on the Chief Whip, his anger increased, the mood of the chamber turned, and he landed some real blows on the PM. Cameron’s attempt to wriggle out of the issue he surely knew was coming was rather poor. Saying that Miliband should focus on “real issues” was a natty attempt at framing, but Miliband’s ad-libbed response, “I think it is a real issue, abusing police officers” – along with comparing a yob’s treatment for swearing at a copper (a night in the cells) with Mitchell’s (a night at the Carlton Club) – settled the tie in favour of the Labour leader.
Yet surely Ed Miliband doesn’t want to see Mitchell go. not really. Not yet. As I wrote a few days ago – the Mitchell poison is starting to infect the Tory body politic. And that’s before the Chief Whip has even had to try and whip his party for any kind of contentious vote. Cameron was already losing his party before this, Mitchell never had the trust of the party. Now they are locked together for a few days more, in a deathly embrace.
And Ed Miliband is encouraging them to hold on a little tighter, by calling for Cameron to let go.