PMQs: tax liabilities of their noble lordships

David Cameron is truly the hotel lobby pianist of parliament. Oily hair, smooth smile, same old bloody tune. Can’t you just see him in one of those awful little 1950s matinee jackets? Yes you can. All over the web, in fact. And at PMQs today, he went for the old will-he-admit-blah-blah-abolishing- boom-and-bust question again.

Of course, I should be fair and say that in some ways repetition of this message is a smart move (I just wouldn’t ever let such fair-mindedness stand in the way of a good caricature). Nick Clegg makes use of the repetition technique sometimes as well, after all. Cameron’s message does get to the heart of the hubris that is characteristic of both Brown and the government in general in terms of how they have behaved with the nation’s finances. However, it also gets to the heart of the fact that the Tories haven’t got the  first clue what to do about it except point and say “nerny-nerny-ner-ner”.

Oh, a mischievous part of me is so looking forward to a Tory government. They provide such excellent comic material, with none of the creepy sense of unhealthsome tragedy that attaches to so many Labour figures, and that demands a better writer than me to do justice to (some kind of hybrid of Alan Bennett and Quentin Tarantino, perhaps). Don’t tell me you can’t wait to see how well the nerny-nerny-ner-ner routine plays out as a strategy of governance in troubled times. We’ll all be crying with laughter as  we hunch in our windowless homes over kerosene lamps eating underdone gerbil in the economic nadir of all things, believe me.

Anyway, onward to Mr Clegg and I have to say (to cheer you up after all that apocalypse-soon talk) that he played a tactical belter today. I’ve not always been a fan of his choice of questions or his performance. I still think he gets too easily tripped up by the inevitable heckles (not that I’d hold that against anyone in the face of the sort of people who give rabid dogs a bad name and think they’re screamingly  funny to boot) but this question was right on the money in the former respect.

From Hansard:

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): Does the Prime Minister think it is right that some Members of the upper House can use their status as non-domicile non-residents to get out of paying their full taxes here in this country?

So what else is Gordon going to do other than get up and say “Well, of course it’s not right.” Bwahaha! He’s ever so pleased with that. So is his party – look! Gordon said something in a slightly droll manner! We’re saved!

Mr. Clegg: In that case, will he—[Interruption.] Hang on. Millions of ordinary British taxpayers are filing their tax returns this week. They are the ones who deserve a tax break, not the super-rich. So will the Prime Minister support our private Member’s Bill to force peers, who make the laws of this country, to pay their full taxes in this country?

See what he’s done there? He’s tied in the tax return deadline, but that’s incidental. He’s done something far cleverer here. Clegg’s problem at PMQs, as I’ve observed before, is that if he attacks Brown head on, Brown only has to bat him away twice. It isn’t realistic to be able to give the same answer six times, which is why Cameron keeps egging on at the boom and bust question. But twice, you can get away with.

That means you can do two things with PMQs if you’re the Lib Dem leader. You can either more or less ignore the farcical “questions” element of it and use it to establish a record for yourself on a given topic – tax cuts, Northern Rock, fuel poverty – provided you’re pretty sure you’re going to end up being proved right about it. The current candidate is nationalisation of at least some of the banks, and it looks like we’re going to be right about  that too. This told-you-so strategy, it must be said, though it has worked in and of itself, has hardly translated into a surge at the polls.

The second strategy is to not directly attack Gordon Brown at all but use your questions to, well, gang up on the Tories. In this case, Nick has taken the issue du jour, Lords’ corruption, and tied it neatly in with Lords’ tax avoidance, and lo and behold, Lord Ashcroft appeareth.

Of course, it’s not quite the same issue, but the public perception won’t make that fine distinction – arrogant, venal old bastards with too much money is what they’ll think. And why not? Though the issues are not the same, they are related in terms of the rottenness of the political system. The rottenness of the system is a favourite Clegg narrative – he was using it in his Unlock Democracy speech yesterday.

Anyway, with the follow-up question, Brown realises he’s been had, and shies away from supporting a Lib Dem  bill, much less a Lib Dem narrative:

The Prime Minister: Where I would disagree with the right hon. Gentleman is to say that we are helping ordinary taxpayers in this country. We are raising personal allowances so that people will pay less tax; they will rise again in April as a result of the decisions in the pre-Budget report. We have cut VAT—and, if I may say so, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says today that that is a far more effective stimulus than critics are saying. Of course, we are also raising pensions and child benefit. Yes, we should take action against tax havens, but, yes also, we are helping ordinary taxpayers in this country.

Well played. It’s a smart idea to tie in Ashcroft but to work it needs follow-up. Nick should keep plugging this line in the press over the coming week while the issue is still hot and – as several commenters including Sue Miller urged on this site the other day – come out with internal party code of conduct governing our peers’ behaviour asap.

Watch the session here.

UPDATE: Lloyd Evans at the Coffee House rather puts me to shame in his verdict on Brown’s response to Clegg, asking why Brown is incapable of saying “Yes” to a sensible, principled idea at PMQs. Blimey, I’d genuinely forgotten that was the alleged aim of the exercise.

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6 Comments

  • Polly and Alice's mum 28th Jan '09 - 9:07pm

    Sorry, maybe its a bit late at night, an maybe I have had more than 1 glass of wine, but I found your post incomprehensible. Is this how you Libdems speak?
    I could’nt actually finish your post. It was badlywritten and pointless.
    Maybe its just as well that I wouldnot vote Libdem if my life depended on it.
    Shame I live in a Libdem stronghold in Cornwall.
    Really though, your writing is so DREARY, not to mention boring. Could’nt you do something about that?

  • Did you really mean to write “matinee jacket”???

    I am confronted with a the alarming vision of Cameron at PMQs dressed in a succesion of scaled up woolies in baby blue, presumably knitted by hordes of devoed Tory ladies in the shires!

  • Alix Mortimer 28th Jan '09 - 10:23pm

    Eek! That’s far scarier!

    I think I must have been conflating the “matinee idol” with the idea of a jacket. You know those horrid cheap tux things with the tails, often in white? Cruisewear a la Bruce Forsyth? Looks surprisingly similar to Bullingdon Club gear?

    I think I’ll leave “matinee jacket” up there though. 😀

  • Since I am just about old enough to remember hotel lobby pianists; I should protest on my late acquaintances’ behalf. But the more showy of them did try to copy the sort of dress the Bullingdon Club also seems to have copied.

    On PMQs, Glegg comes on after Cameron, so it is a good occasion to point to the many, many points at which it is harder to tell Tory from Labour than it is to sort the rubbish between one waste plastic and another.

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