First up, apologies for PMQs lateness once again. The more Twittery among you will know that this is not (this time) due to my being an indolent wossname, but instead due to my having been listening to and commenting on it on BBC 5Live from the most charmingly antiquated studio room you can imagine in Guildford (or any other prosperous southern town; I prescribe no limits to your imagination in this regard).
Here’s a thing – so far as I can recall I’ve never listened to PMQs before, only watched it, and I found the whole business a lot less painful on radio. Brown’s simmering red jowels and pustulent indignation, the light bouncing off Cameron’s forehead, his mysterious and unnerving habit of pointing sideways at distant Fire Exit signs while he’s talking (seriously, what is he pointing at?) – I was spared it all. The only downside was the added sharpness rendered to my hearing by not being able to see what was going on – “Bad haircut!” shouted someone when Clegg stood up. That’s the kind of level these people are operating on.
The chamber was, in fact, even more rabid that usual, fired up beyond all sense by news of the resignation of former HBOS boss Sir James Crosby from the Vice Chairmanship of the FSA not an hour before the session started. Cameron used that, and as last week, began well and looked to be stamping all over Brown. There were a couple of points when he let himself get shrilly carried away towards the end, but still an improvement on the usual squawking. He’s still affectedly determined that the Prime Minister’s going to say sorry for something – whether it’s the credit crunch, British jobs for British workers or, today, the appointment as Vice Chair of the FSA and government adviser of a man who now stands accused of ignoring and sacking a whistleblower at his own bank.
I see why Cameron does it as a tactic, but as a strategy it bores me to tears and it’s dishonest as well. He doesn’t have a hope of Gordon Brown apologising, and nor does he want one. Brown’s saying sorry would have to mean calling an election – which Cameron’s shadow treasury team just isn’t ready for. I notice Ken Clark’s gone very quiet after an initial run-in or two with Mandelson, and one does wonder if he’s locked up somewhere hurriedly doing all Georgie’s Christmas hols coursework for him. Cameron’s constant calls for Brown to say sorry are just another part of the cosy conservative consensus – each party is entrenched in a position of mutually dependent safety. They know perfectly well what the other one’s going to say.
Clegg’s questions (though he didn’t mention tax for once, causing me to be spectacularly wrong on air) echoed last week but one’s in that the first question was relatively benign, innocent even:
Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): Since the Queen’s Speech a few months ago, the Government have been churning out on average three new announcements each and every day. Will the Prime Minister tell me how many of those initiatives are being put into practice?
The Prime Minister: As Isaid a few minutes ago, more than 50,000 companies are benefiting from the measures that we have taken. Those measures include the new enterprise scheme; they include the working capital scheme that is being opened up in the next few days; and they include what we have done with the Inland Revenue and others to help people with the costs that they face at this time. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that we are not only helping businesses in this country, but we are helping people when they become unemployed. In only the past few weeks, we have put in an extra £500 million to help them. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also see the help that we are giving people with their mortgages, which is designed to keep the problem of mortgage arrears and repossessions down.
And then, after Gordon has shot his mouth off, comes the sting:
Mr. Clegg: Let us look at some of the Prime Minister’s big announcements. He said that he would get the banks lending again; they are not. He said that he would get tough on bankers’ bonuses, yet he is letting them keep millions in bonuses in return for a cynical apology. He said that he would create 100,000 new jobs, yet with unemployment today standing at almost 2 million and rising, our young people of today will be tomorrow’s jobless generation. It is bad enough to be a do-nothing party; is it not even worse to be a say-anything, do-nothing Prime Minister?
The Prime Minister: I have tried to explain in recent weeks that the problem with bank lending is actually the loss of foreign banking and non-banking capacity in this country. Half the lending in mortgages and half the lending to businesses came from that source. When that source leaves, as the Irish, American and other banks have left the country or have run down their capacity, the existing banks must do more.
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the banks in which we have an interest are lending more than they were. The problem is that we must build out of a gap in capacity that existed because of the loss of foreign lending. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that that is what is happening at the moment. We are trying to sign lending agreements with the banks.
As for the right hon. Gentleman’s other allegations, if I had taken his advice we would have made the wrong decisions.
Eh? (My emphasis).
The last line of Brown’s answer represents all that is worst about PMQs. When he knows there can’t be another question coming, he gets up on his hindlegs and lies through his teeth. That apart, this performance of Clegg’s is a slightly less effective version of the old manoeuvre, if truth be told, because it doesn’t showcase a Liberal Democrat alternative in the second question. Recent superior examples include Clegg calling on Brown to support the Lib Dem private member’s bill on tax abuse in the Lords, and to nationalise one of the banks entirely. He has since been proved right on the former – inasmuch as a clause for the same purpose was hurriedly pushed into the Constitutional Reform Bill – and may yet be right on the latter.
Still, on the plus side, there’s a new catchphrase in town, and it’s one of ours. I hope Clegg repeats this one.