It is always slightly too easy to exaggerate the importance of Prime Minister’s Question Time. To the uninitiated (and there are some, mainly in more genteel democracies) it is a form of reality TV in which a normally dignified man or woman, with much on their mind and better things to do with their time, is forced to stand up for half an hour on live TV and be accurate, well-informed, witty and, well, abusive.
One slip and he/she reads about it in all the papers for the rest of the week.
The latest contestant (let us call him Mr Bullingdon) discovered why prerehearsed lines don’t always work. He dug out from a student routine a recollection of a commercial aired some years ago in which a well-known sexist film producer said sexist things to women. Most of us remember cringing at this and making a mental note that we would not ever in any circumstances buy the product advertised. Ever.
So what? Will the coalition sink or sail because of this? Not on its own. But it does help us put together a picture of particular Cameronian misjudgements. These are distinct from Coalition misjudgements (eg over tuition fees or free schools) and distinct again from general leadership misjudgements like the nature and pace of NHS reforms.
It is simply unacceptable to say to any woman ‘Calm down, dear’ whether or not suffixed by ‘it’s only a commercial.’ Normal liberal people don’t do it. It might have been funny had it been said to Ed Balls but even then the reference back to a particularly offensive piece of television is difficult to justify.
And it is not a one off. His prominence in the No Campaign was unexpected – and arguably bad faith with his Coalition partners. It is also a campaign of astonishing dishonesty: Cameron has not repudiated the patently false claims that the costs of AV would run into hundreds of millions and that the NHS would suffer as a result. Nor has he repudiated the blatantly racist imagery used to suggest that really only Papua New Guinea uses it.
Prime Ministers cannot be associated with dishonesty any more than they can nowadays be associated with sexism.
Huhne and more recently Clegg have condemned the dishonesty over AV. Liberal Democrats will be waiting for similar public denunciations over this week’s Bullingdonism – while wondering all the time how much longer we can go on with these right-wing buffoons.
In Coalition terms, we may have crossed a watershed in the past two weeks. The more the Liberal Democrats cringe, the less likely it is that the Coalition will survive to 2015.