A rather sombre start to a historic (and delayed) PMQs today, given the horrific shootings in Cumbria and (as usual) the cross-party nod to the latest tragic and pointless deaths of British squaddies in Afghanistan.
The Tory backbencher Douglas Carswell kicked off proceedings by asking whether or not there would be a bill to ensure Lords reform in the next 12 months and, specifically, that “all our lawmakers” will be elected.
The Prime Minister’s answer? “There will be a draft motion by December, which the House can vote on. I’ve always supported a predominantly elected House of Lords.” He used the phrase “predominantly elected ” again, later, in the same answer.
So, not quite a whole-hearted “yes” from Cameron, I would argue. Others might disagree and I suppose they’d have a point: 70 or 80 per cent elected is better than nothing. Labour failed on Lords reform.
Once again, Harriet Harman, the acting Labour leader, did a solid, assured and competent job at the despatch box. Her first few questions were on the Middle East and on the coalition’s plan to grant anonymity to rape defendants, which elicited mature and serious responses from the Prime Minister. For a moment, we were actually witnessing a grown-up, non-Punch-and-Judy discussion between the party leaders in the House. But it also meant we had to wait until Harman switched the subject to the married couple’s tax allowance to hear the raucous cheering, braying or booing from all sides that we normally associate with PMQs.
To loud Labour cheers, Harman, for example, mocked Cameron’s claim that a £3-a-week allowance would keep couples together and prevent the “family breakdowns” he believes are the cause of so much of this nation’s poverty, crime and antisocial behaviour. I noticed Nick Clegg sitting quietly behind Cameron, smiling awkwardly as the Prime Minister made the case for this particular tax break. So did Harman, who had come prepared with this particular zinger: “On this… Nick agrees with me.” (Clegg, you will remember, described the Tory proposals on marriage, during the election campaign, as “patronising drivel that belong in the Edwardian age. David Cameron clearly has no idea about modern life.”)
As the BBC’s political correspondent Mike Sergeant pointed out:
This will surely be Labour’s tactic every week — their aim will be to make Nick Clegg squirm. But the Lib Dem leader seemed comfortable enough as Mr Cameron batted this one away.
Seeing as Cameron has long seen himself as the “heir to Blair”, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see Tory backbenchers behaving in 2010 as their New Labour counterparts did in 1997: loyally, slavishly, uncritically, robotically.
Adam Holloway, MP for Gravesham, who claimed £1.95 for lightbulbs on his expenses, moaned about overspending by the previous government. The newly elected MP for Stratford-on-Avon, Nadim Zahawi, the first Iraqi Kurd to ask a question at PMQs, chose not to ask about the chaos in his country of origin, or the concerns of his new constituents in Shakespeareland, but instead asked the Prime Minister if he was surprised that so many civil servants earned more than him. The newly elected MP for Stroud, Neil Carmichael, asked Cameron if his local maternity unit could count on the Prime Minister’s support. I started to feel my lunch coming up…
Then again, the Labour members weren’t much better. I couldn’t count a single question that put the Prime Minister on the spot or challenged him in any significant way. The opposition will have to raise its game in the coming weeks. David Cameron, to borrow a pre-election phrase from Andrew Marr, “is on a roll”.