It was the final prime minister’s questions of this parliament today, the last Commons debate ever probably between Ed Miliband and David Cameron. Members of parliament were boisterous and rowdy. Just 43 days to go to the general election and on 30 March parliament is dissolved. Many go back to fight for an uncertain future in their constituencies, some are standing down. The house had a rather hysterical feel.
The stakes are high. Everyone knows that the general election is on a knife-edge. It does not look like any party will get a clear majority. As an MP anything you say will be taken down and used in evidence against you on a poster or election leaflet. But if Ben Page from Ipsos Mori is right, half the electorate has not decided who to vote for, and so there is all to play for.
Yet everyone was playing it safe. Barely a Tory MP stood up today without mentioning the dreaded ‘long-term economic plan’, those magic words which the Tories hope will win them the election.
There was some Tory footsie being played with the Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Irish party the Tories might need to be in government in May. They were pushing home their possible advantage with a question about the ‘on the runs’ comfort letters sent to Irish republicans.
But there was very little self-criticism about prime minister’s questions itself. All those people on the doorstep who are telling politicians they are disillusioned with politics had not been listened to. It was even more like a ‘bear pit’ than usual.
Both leaders were desperate to get down to business.
Miliband got the story first by asking Cameron a ‘straight question’ about ruling out VAT rises if he won the election. Cameron just replied ‘Yes’. This was rather odd. George Osborne, the chancellor had refused to rule out a rise five times in parliament yesterday. And as Labour’s Sir Hugh Bayley pointed out later in the session the Tories had ‘dismissed claims they were putting up VAT before the last election’ only to go and do it just afterwards. Miliband went on to tackle Cameron about the size of cuts to public services. Cameron’s Office for Budget Responsibility, he said, had said the cuts would be worse than anything that had happened during this parliament. What did the prime minister have to say to that? Not very much it turned out.
What about immigration – he had not fulfilled his promise on that had he? Nor on his pledge to have ‘no top down re-organisation of the NHS’. Mention the NHS and it leads to Cameron listing dodgy figures which are never quite the same. This time it was 9,000 nurses and 7,000 doctors, and 20,000 bureaucrats! What? He did not mean it of course, it was a slip of the tongue, but it would be an interesting election slogan
Cameron tried to get Miliband to rule out a rise in national insurance payments. This is prime minister’s questions but it has never stopped Cameron trying to ask questions of the leader of the opposition. Miliband wisely did not answer either.
The best joke today came from Stephen Pound, the Labour MP for Ealing North. Some of the ‘rougher elements’ had referred to the prime minister as ‘chicken’ he said, a reference to the chicken accusations levelled at Cameron when he initially refused to take part in TV debates. ‘Would the prime minister say it would be perfectly fair to refer to him now as a lame duck?’
Cameron responded by saying that that Miliband would be Alex Salmond’s poodle if he became prime minister.
It was so horribly childish. There have been quite a few well-meaning articles over the last 24 hours saying how, seeing this, people do not really realise the sensible and difficult work MPs do and how awful it is that prime minister’s questions is all they see. Well yes, up to a point. But politics as it is practised in Britain with a Tory-led government is largely reflected in prime ministers’ questions.
Our politics is overwhelmingly male – there are only 22 per cent of women in the House of Commons, and more men in the House of Commons now than there have ever been women. That is why women MPs get heckled and abused when they stand up. The Tory and Liberal Democrat front benches are dominated by public school boys who see the Commons as their own private debating chamber, where they can do whatever they like because they were born to rule. This shabby little government has been dominated by short termism and a desire to win the tactical argument, even if that goes against the good of the country. If you stand up to this – as Ed Miliband does and many Labour men and women do – you get bullied or told to ‘calm down dear’.
Let’s let the cameras in to more of the House of Commons to see what goes on. But let’s not get rid of prime minister’s questions and try to cover up what it is really like.