‘We followed procedure,’ was David Cameron’s only defence of his employment of Stephen Green, the former chair and chief executive of HSBC. As an answer from a politician, let alone a prime minister, it is little better than: ‘I was just following orders.’

That a sustained barrage by Labour members of parliament and Ed Miliband managed to get this phrase out of him was the biggest triumph of a rowdy and very aggressive prime minister’s questions. Cameron blustered, ducked, dived, evaded, avoided for most of the time. He even at one point resorted to answering a question Miliband had asked last week.

The thrust of Miliband’s attack was that the Tory party was up to its neck in tax avoidance. Cameron had employed Green as a trade minister in 2011, knowing about the tax avoidance at HSBC, it was said. And the party had taken £5m from donors who had secret offshore HSBC accounts.

As he put it:  ‘[There was] a revolving door between Conservative head office and an offshore branch of HSBC.’

Cameron’s defence of this was, essentially, that ‘everyone was at it’. What about Stanley Fink, asked Miliband.

The prime minister tried an anti-trade union attack line. But Ed replied: ‘He’s a dodgy prime minister surrounded by dodgy donors.’

There were more attempts by Cameron to say that Labour had ignored the problem in 2007 when Ed Balls was a minister at the Treasury and that since the Tories came to power they had cracked down.

‘There are public allegations,’ said Miliband. ‘But he does not answer the question. He just turns a blind eye.’ It was, went on Miliband, like Andy Coulson, Cameron’s former head of media at No 10 who served a jail term for conspiracy to hack phones.

‘There is,’ said Miliband, ‘something rotten at the heart of the Tory party and it is him!’

It was Labour MPs who managed to get that fatal phrase out of Cameron, though.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) asked him a very specific question about whether there were any prosecutions of people from the HSBC caseload which the public accounts committee had been told were ‘in train’.

Cameron said that HMRC was independent of the government so made its own decisions about who to prosecute. He said wanting HMRC to carry out prosecutions was tantamount to corruption, which ‘seems to be the path suggested by the party opposite.’ It was tortuous and desperate stuff.

Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) asked, to much shouting, another question about HSBC: ‘Did the prime minister have a conversation with Lord Green about tax avoidance at HSBC and if not why not?’ Bingo: ‘Every proper process was had,’ replied Cameron.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle Central) was next: ‘There are advertisements in Newcastle exhorting my constituents to report benefit fraudsters. Why does he not feel so strongly about tax avoiders? Did he have a conversation with Lord Green about tax avoidance?’

Then Phil Wilson (Sedgefield): ‘Did you never once have a conversation with Lord Green about tax avoidance?’

Bingo again: ‘We followed procedure.’

There was news of things collapsing round the country from other Labour MPs. Peter Hain (Neath) said that a severely disabled constituent of his was just about to have his mobility scooter snatched from him after 11 years by the Department for Work and Pensions and that it was a ‘heartless and disgraceful injustice.’

John Mann (Bassetlaw) asked about antisemitism and safety in synagogues and other Jewish buildings.

And John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) brought up Hillingdon Hospital that has had a ‘needs improvement’ report from the CQC. The hospital lacked staff and the fabric of the building was ‘out of the third world.’

It was a pre-election prime minister’s questions, red in tooth and claw, but in the end Miliband and his MPs got the better of Cameron.


Sally Gimson is a journalist and Labour councillor in the London borough of Camden. She writes the PMQs on Progress column and tweets @SallyGimson