The last time David Cameron used PMQs to claim that the Sure Start budget is protected, his sheer chutzpah ensured that little damage was done. Today, however, he came unstuck. Ed Miliband noted that Conservative-run Bromley is shutting 13 of its 16 children’s centres. So, what happened to Cameron’s pledge that front-line services would be protected?
In response, the PM said that the government had told councils to publish more information about their spending – an irrelevant answer – and that the budget is protected “so centres don’t have to close” – a flat-out lie. As I’ve explained before, Sure Start funding is in no sense ring-fenced. The programmes covered by the early intervention grant (including Sure Start) received nearly £2.5bn in 2010 but this year they will receive just £2.2bn – a cut of £270m. As the Department for Education confirmed last year: “In 2011-12, the amount to be allocated through EIG is 10.9 per cent lower than the aggregated 2010-11 funding through the predecessor grants.”
By the end of the exchange, Cameron had lost his thread and dissolved into a fit of giggles. He was soon rescued by the Speaker, John Bercow, but the PM appeared badly briefed and complacent. Cameron’s new director of strategy, Andrew Cooper, is reportedly planning to tell him to be “a national leader, rather than a party politician. Especially in the Commons.”
It is advice the PM badly needs. After Miliband noted Cameron’s capacity to “ditch a policy and dump a colleague in it”, the PM shot back: “Next he’ll be giving me a lesson on family loyalty.” But this sharp riposte was spoiled by his lame closing gibe that soon Labour would ask: “Brother, where art thou?”
Cameron’s insistence that Sure Start is protected, against all evidence to the contrary, is neither politically nor intellectually sustainable. After today’s performance, it’s clearer than ever that a sincere defence of the cuts would serve him best.