There was only one subject David Cameron wanted to talk about at today’s PMQs: Unite and Len McCluskey. After one of Ed Miliband’s strongest months as Labour leader, the Tories are determined to use the rows over Falkirk and Grangemouth to try and throw him off course.
It was the NHS that Miliband led on, laying down a marker by challenging Cameron to guarantee that there wouldn’t be an A&E crisis this winter. Both leaders traded stats and slogans (“the NHS isn’t safe in his hands”, “Labour never stand up for the NHS”) to little effect, with Miliband just about edging the PM. The Tories’ fateful decision to impose Andrew Lansley’s reforms on the service (for which they had no mandate) means they will find it harder to evade responsibility for the crises ahead.
Cameron ended the exchange by rather clumsily shoehorning in an attack on Unite, demanding “when is he going to understand his job is to stand up to the bully boys in Unite and show some courage?” And there was more to come. To one of the many planted questions from Tory backbenchers on the subject, he replied that Miliband was “behaving like the mayor of a Sicilian town towards the mafia – ‘they put me in and I don’t want them to take me out'”, a barb that drew some grudging smiles from Labour MPs.
But near the end of session, the PM overreached himself. After Labour MP John Cryer ended a question on employment tribunals by declaring, “I’m a trade unionist and I’m damn proud of it”, Cameron responded by ignoring the original topic and launched another blitzkrieg against the union “bully boys” who “seem to condone intimidating families, intimidating witnesses and intimidating the leader of the opposition”. This prompted a dramatic intervention from John Bercow, who acidly remarked: “it’s a good idea to remember the essence of the question that was put”. As the Labour frontbench motioned for Cameron to get to his feet again, the PM shook his head in exasperation. The tension rose later when he headed off another intervention from Bercow by declaring “I’m keen to answer the question, Mr Speaker!” and flashed him a look of contempt. The Tories have often accused Bercow of unfairly ruling against Cameron, but never has the PM so explicitly retaliated. Deputy chief whip Greg Hands continued the assault after the session by tweeting: “PMQs getting like Old Trafford. 5 minutes extra time in the hope that the Reds can score a late equaliser.”
Yet however much they may dislike the messenger, the Tories would be wise to listen to the message. One can hardly blame them for seeking to take advantage of the Falkirk debacle but they shouldn’t make the error of assuming that voters share their instinctive loathing of the trade unions. A recent Populus poll found that 69 per cent of the public agree that “it is important that Labour retains its strong links with the trade unions because they represent many hard working people in Britain”, including 53 per cent of Tory voters, with just 28 per cent disagreeing.
The days when Ted Heath was forced to call an election to find out whether it was he or the unions “who ran Britain” (answer: the unions) are long gone. Today’s general secretaries present a far less threatening face. If he wants to win converts, rather than merely rouse supporters, Cameron should avoid a repeat of today’s monomania.