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18 November 2009

Chamber of secrets . .

. . . an update from the House of Commons

By James Macintyre

From the Commons chamber

The fascinating day here started with a private party at Speaker’s House where many of the great and the good gathered to gossip in advance of the Queen’s Speech debate, which is under way as I write from the Commons chamber. I won’t disclose here some of the private discussions that took place (except to say that John Bercow appears safer from a Tory coup after the election; and that Tony Blair, according to close friends, is still very much in the running for the European presidency, decided tomorrow) but will instead focus on the debate.

First came the traditional speeches from MPs standing down, the most notable of which was from Frank Dobson, the one-time Labour mayoral candidate. David Cameron set the Tory tone by laying in to him rather nastily, raising eyebrows here in the Press Gallery, but Gordon Brown paid tribute to the principled former minister.

On the substance of the government’s agenda, Cameron tried to savage Brown’s record over the past year, referring abstractly to the Damian McBride affair and seeking to ridicule Brown’s reference to his “moral compass”.

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Brown, however, hit back hard with a comprehensive take-down of the Tories’ policy agenda, focusing on Cameron’s plans to cut inheritance tax for the country’s richest estates.

Cameron made a valid point when he asked: “If it is such a bad idea, why has that side done it last year and this?”

But Brown said the Tories were “wrong” on a raft of issues and received a warmer reception than Cameron did on his own benches.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the government is “running out of steam” and ran through what he called a “fantasy” Queen’s Speech, attacking plans for child poverty and banking reform. Clegg reiterated his call to “split up the banks”.

Earlier at the Speaker’s residence, Clegg appeared in good spirits. He has made the running on both the Queen’s Speech and Afghanistan this week, and is being widely praised in Westminster . . . even though he sounds as if he has a cold.

Earlier today the Queen’s cavalry and foreign diplomats’ limos lined the streets of Westminster, making it hard for us pass-holders to get in but offering a pretty impressive sight. Yet behind the pomp, normal politics was under way here today, and the game is still on for next year’s general election.

 

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