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17 November 2010

PMQs verdict: Cameron gets the better of muddled Harman

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

By George Eaton

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.

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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.