I feel as though Norris McWhirter (late of the Guinness Book of Records) ought to have been kneeling at the foot of the Speaker’s Chair with his stopwatch for this momentous Prime Minister’s Questions. There were several records or firsts being set. The first coalition PMQs ever, I would suggest (I doubt whether Winnie or Ramsay or our David held such events). The first with Liberal Democrats on the government benches. The first with a party sporting its second female leader (Margaret Beckett was acting Labour leader after John Smith died). And it’s 13 long years since we had a PMQs with a Labour leader asking the questions (have they remembered how to do it?). Phew!
It all certainly makes a change from Brown and Cameron bellowing away at each other, as they were at the last PMQs on April 7th. It seems an eternity away.
In the event, the session was sombre, opening with a statement on tragic events in Cumbria, as well as the normal opening tributes to soldiers who have died in Afghanistan.
This was the least “ya-boo” PMQs I have ever witnessed. There was a remarkably low incidence of point scoring and bellowing. Amazing, really. Harriet Harman seemed to be going off on a special Harperson “pet causes” fishing expedition but in fact managed to very cleverly, deftly and humourously highlight a Grand Canyon within the coalition by bashing Cameron about the plans for a Married Couples tax allowance.
Here’s how the session unfolded:
Douglas Carswell (Con) started with a refreshing attack (coming from a Tory) on the House of Lords – “the biggest quango of the lot”. Hear! Hear!
Cameron: There will be a draft motion by December on a predominantly elected second chamber. Hurrah!
Harriet Harman started with a question about the blockade of Gaza. No Ya-boo there.
Cameron replied: We should do everything we can to make sure this doesn’t happen again. We should do everything we can through the UN to end the blockade. I count myself as a friend of Israel – it’s in their own interests to lift the blockade.
Harman then asked about prosecuting rape cases. She said that by making rape defendants anonymous it’ll be harder to convict, by reducing publicity which brings forward witnesses.
Cameron: I sat on the Select Committee which examined this. Came to the conclusion that between arrest and charge there is a case for anonymity – will bring forward proposals for debate in the House.
Harman pushes this one: By singling out rape in this way sends out a message that the alleged rape victim is not to be believed.
Cameron banged the dispatch box saying: We want to send more rapists to jail.
Harman said his response was disappointing. Then went on to the married tax allowance. How would this help the deficit?
Cameron: Unashamed supporter of the family. European countries recognize marriage in the tax system. Proposals will come forward. Christmas parties and parking bikes at work are recognized in the tax system – why not marriage? Eh?
Harman: How will this help the deficit control?
Cameron: One of the causes of spending is family breakdown. Will also recognize civil partnerships also.
Harman: £3 a week tax break will help keep families together he is saying. No wonder the Deputy Prime Minister is sitting quietly by his side. On this one I agree with Nick! (Nice one Hattie!)
Cameron then descended into a point scoring exercise which I didn’t follow.
A Liberal Democrat question! Sir Alan of the Beith. What means will be used to expand the private sector in places like the North East?
Cameron: No region should be singled out. Budget should bring forward ideas to fire up the private sector – e.g. N.I. not paid on first ten employees. The government is looking at ideas to help regions as we deal with the deficit.
A Labour member raised a very important point about school building in the wake of the free schools initiative. Cameron pointed out that the schools budget was protected in the recent cuts. He said: Our passion is to build schools for the future.
There was a good line from Cameron when he received rowdy disapproval for promising to come back with an answer. Then he said the good line: “Well it’s a funny thing, I’m going to give accurate answers rather than making them up on the spot”.
A line about “We’re all united in despising the Liberal Democrats” from a Labour MP received a big laugh but then the Speaker kiboshed the questioner for being off the given topic of Afghanistan. Oh, and Cameron was bated for wanting to scrap the Human Rights Act. Labour have obviously twigged that the name of the game is now to open up as many divisions in the coalition that they can.
In amongst all this there were some balls. Of the golf variety.