For the third week out of the last four, a Liberal Democrat asked the first question at Prime Minister’s Questions. This is turning into a tradition! Yay! This week it was the turn of Roger Williams to go through the charade of asking the PM for an entirely predictable list of his engagements for the day. Rather cleverly, albeit interrupted by some harrying from the Speaker, Roger manage to squeeze in two points: a) the key role played by the Sennybridge ranges and the infantry battle school in his constituency and b) a question about foreign students and universities: “Can the Prime Minister give an assurance to the universities that any proposals will not discourage the recruitment of genuine students?” Yes, said the Prime Minister, in terms, but we have to crack down on abuse, he added.
A good opening gambit from Ed Miliband: “Can the Prime Minister tell us, how is his big society going?”
Some laughter ensued. Cameron retorted that all MPs support it, but, oddly, found himself having to explain what it is. Miliband threw in a quote from the chief executive of Community Service Volunteers saying that government policies are “Destroying the volunteer army.” Cameron replied that the government are putting £470 million into charities and volunteering bodies. £100million will go from the banks into the “Big Society Bank.”
Miliband replied “The Prime Minister does not mention that he is cutting billions of pounds from voluntary sector organisations up and down this country.” He mentioned that the Daycare Trust says that 270 Sure Start schemes are likely to close. Ed Miliband was onto a bit of a winner here.
Cameron then responded with a contradicting quote from the head of the Daycare Trust. Then, for a moment, Cameron seems to have hit his head on the dispatch box and regressed back to those happy times when he was Opposition leader: “I look forward to the answer to this one.”
Hello? To use Ed Miliband’s catch-phrase: “I ask the questions.”
Then the opposition leader mentioned the cuts in local government funding and a quote from the Conservative head of the Local Government Association saying that Eric Pickles is “detached from reality” in alleging the cuts would not impact frontline services. “Can he explain to people who are concerned about [library closures] how he expects people to volunteer at the local library if it is being shut down?” That was an excellent line. This really was a good week for Ed Miliband. That line, indeed, was so good that Cameron didn’t answer it straight away and played for time (?) by quoting some figures on Sure Start demonstrating that their budget is going up.
Fair enough, but a bit late. If you miss a few seconds at PMQs you’re dead meat. [Wheel one comes off.]
Cameron eventually got round to libraries and said that their funding is returning to 2007 levels so there shouldn’t be a problem – which is possibly a non-sequitur. And then Cameron really went out on a limb and started talking off script. He said that investment would go to libraries “that wake up to the world of new technology, the internet and everything else”. Everything else? What? – Like stocking books which people want to read? Or did he mean that libraries should stock do-it-yourself warm fusion kits? [Wheel two comes off.]
That got a beautiful reply from Miliband: “Only this Prime Minister could blame the libraries for closing.”
Miliband laid into the PM and quoted “his big society adviser, Paul Twivy” who apparently said that the big society idea “is increasingly loathed by the public.”
We then got a rich mix of trees being chopped down to produce Ed Miliband’s book of blank pages, Attila the Hun, Mother Theresa and David Davis (spot the difference). Miliband asked “Is not the truth being exposed day by day—he is cutting too far and too fast, and society is becoming smaller and weaker, not bigger and stronger?”
Then we were plunged back into the “mess Labour left” and Balls’ deficit denial, replete with deficit confirmation from the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Cameron finished strongly after a bit of a pasting of his pet project, the “Big Society”: “The truth about the Opposition is that they doubled the debt, let the banks rip and bankrupted the country, and their only message is, ‘Let us do it all over again.’”
Other snippets were:
- Conservative Christopher Chope asked if Cameron would go along with the Lords’ amendment to have a 40% threshold on the AV referendum, or at least allow a free vote on it in the Commons. Cameron said, more or less, ‘no’ (saying that previous referendums haven’t had thresholds) and asked Chope to join him to encourage people to vote in the referendum.
- We had, if I’m not mistaken, a “Closed Question”. Don’t ask. I think this is a question which is slipped into the garter of the Speaker the night before (while he’s, ahem, folding up bedsheets with his wife) written in Middle English on goatskin in green ink. It was from Julian Lewis (Conservative) about the nuclear deterrent. Cameron said twice: “The replacement of Trident is going ahead”. I thought it had been shelved. Ho hum. “The initial gate will soon be passed” – I’d love to know what that means. “That is Conservative policy; it will remain Conservative policy as long as I am the leader of this party.” – he said with Nick Clegg beside him. A bit odd that…
- David Cairns (Labour) highlighted the government’s penchant for rebranding: “antisocial behaviour orders as criminal behaviour orders, ….control orders as terrorism prevention and investigation measures, and ….curfews as overnight residence requirements.”
- Valerie Vaz (Labour) wins “Laboured (nay, tortured) line of the year” award for “Is it the case that the NHS is not safe in the hands of the Government, but that the hands are in the safe of the NHS?”
- Liberal Democrat Ian Swales asked what I think is his first question at PMQs. It was about the punishment for knife crime. Cameron said that the offence of carrying a knife should receive a prison sentence. He added about knife crime and Labour: “they were as soft as anything on it.” As “soft as anything”? Running out of idiomatic steam are we, Mr Cameron? That wouldn’t include being as soft as rock, would it? Rock is anything, after all. [Wheel three comes off with a clang.] Time for a break at Chequers, methinks.