PMQs: Hattie opens up the Coalition’s Grand Canyon

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.

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17 Comments

  • Duncan Moore 2nd Jun '10 - 5:11pm

    @MatGB

    Technically, if that case is counted, we’ve had 13 years of a coalition government as the Co-operative party are merged to Labour at the constituency level and have separate organisation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Co-operative_Party). Though they do field their candidates as “Co-operative and Labour” candidates. 😛

  • The Cameron point scoring on Tax Allowances was the astute observation that Labour recognized Marriage by changing the inheritance tax rules. I don’t really agree with the tax allowance, but he is right to point out the hypocrisy of Labour on it.

    Disappointing to hear “predominantly elected” house of Lords. A fully democratic house isn’t going to happen it seems. Shame.

    All the rest was rather a boring affair I thouhgt.

  • Andrea Gill 2nd Jun '10 - 6:05pm
  • Paul McKeown 2nd Jun '10 - 6:09pm

    @DSD

    The Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party formed the SDP Liberal Alliance in 1981, which disbanded in 1988, when the two parties merged to form the Liberal Democrats. In that sense they are a single party, but they are of course a coalition in the sense that all parties contain a diverse range of political opinions, which in the case of the LD’s could crudely be classed as Orange Book (with emphasis on economic liberalism), Beveridge Group (with emphasis on social liberalism) and a broad greenish swathe of opinion, too.

  • Anyone else notice Cameron’s “govt wastes loads of money on pot plants” comment – a nod towards David Laws?

  • Duncan Moore 2nd Jun '10 - 6:55pm

    @MatGB

    I was being semi-serious really – the Co-op party is a distinct political party (and does actually have its own offices) but it hasn’t fielded non-joint candidates since the 20s. It definitely exists (Andrea pointed out a good example of a prominent Co-op politician) but about the only way it’s anything more than a faction in the party is on paper.

    From what little I know the Nat Libs were like that towards the end (Hesseltine ran as a Nat Lib when he was first elected and switched to being elected as a Conservative without it being noteworthy at the time that he didn’t make a grand announcement of defection) but obviously they were separate for some time. As for parties in general – they aren’t technically coalitions on paper but obviously they basically are coalitions in reality. Anyway, we’re veering massively off topic and I’ve work to do but it’s been fun 🙂

    @DSD

    As with most parties, effectively, but on paper it’s not. I’m sure that the members of the SDP and Liberal party who refused to merge would be quite miffed at your comment 😉

  • Duncan Moore 2nd Jun '10 - 8:18pm

    @DSD

    From what I know (and the most thorough wikipedia-ing known to man for everything else :P) I think it was different in each case. The picture seems a bit confused re: Nat Libs – the Wikipedia page says that they put forward joint candidates with the Tories from 1949 but Hesseltine apparently also stood just as a National Liberal in the late 50s, Charles Hill having won a seat on a combined Tory-NatLib ticket in 1950. Odds are I’ve done my research wrong but I don’t think I can spare the time to double check all of this stuff now.

    Re: Co-operative party – they had separate candidates until 1927 and from then on ran on joint tickets, I think. SDP were backed by Liberals very nearly from day one I think but on an informal basis initially, albeit only for a few months. According to Wikipedia there were also two distinct parties both called the Social Democratic Party competing for the same seat on one occasion – which I find quite amusing. Anyway, hope this is the info you wanted 🙂

  • One word I would never use to describe Ed Balls is ‘cooperative’.

  • David Dutton also wrote ‘A History of the Liberal Party in the Twentieth Century’ which is much more easily available.

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