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.

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt