PMQs verdict: Cameron gets the better of muddled Harman

Labour's deputy leader played her trump card too late.

After trouncing Nick Clegg last week, Harriet Harman struggled to get the better of David Cameron at today's PMQs. She started well, demanding to know how many police officers the coalition's cuts will cost. Cameron ducked the question and simply responded, to groans from the House, that it would be up to individual forces to "maximise resources on the frontline."

Harman landed another blow when she reminded MPs that Cameron previously insisted that any minister who proposed cuts to "frontline services" would be sent back to "think again". But the Prime Minister countered with his own quote: when asked if Labour could guarantee that police numbers would not fall under its watch, the then home secretary, Alan Johnson, replied: "No".

At this point, the encounter was shaping up to be a scrappy score draw, but Labour's deputy leader soon lost her way after arguing that the £100m cost of hiring elected police commissioners would be better spent on more police officers. Harman's attack was sincere but the claim that we can't afford a more democratic and accountable force was unconvincing.

Harman's cause wasn't helped by her contemptuous reference to the coalition's "deficit reduction" plan. The coalition's cuts are economically reckless and regressive but her crude dismissal of the deficit allowed Cameron to score an easy open goal. It also won't have impressed that "instinctive cutter", Alan Johnson.

Labour's deputy leader left it until the end to play her trump card -- Cameron's U-turn on his vanity photographers. But the Prime Minister rallied with an assault on the many dubious characters employed by Labour, including Damian McBride. In response, Labour's backbenchers chanted: "Coulson, Coulson, Coulson". It was the obvious and correct riposte. As I've argued before, if Coulson did know about the phone-hacking then he's too wicked to stay in his post, and if he didn't know then he's too stupid.

But with all her questions used up, Harman missed another opportunity to pin Cameron down. Score this one for the Prime Minister.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.