The prime minister, David Cameron, is still in election mode. He was red-faced. He gesticulated violently. He name checked ‘Our Long-Term Economic Plan’. And he also managed to ask Harriet Harman, who was facing him over the dispatch box today, many more questions than he answered.
Bizarrely, Cameron was not the relaxed leader you would have expected having just secured, against all the odds, the first outright Tory victory since 1992. Of course he was smug and patronising, he cannot help that. He was not generous, he was still out to score tactical points.
Perhaps the clue to his defensiveness is to be found in his majority of 12 and in the questions that some of his own people asked today. Cameron may have destroyed the Liberal Democrats but he has not yet wiped out the liberals in his party.
Take Andrew Mitchell, the former chief whip and Conservative member of parliament for Sutton Coalfield. He does not like Cameron, who got rid of him – he thinks too precipitately – over the Downing Street policeman saga. So perhaps it was no surprise that his first question was a hostile one. Would Cameron, he asked, rule out withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights? Cameron was forced to say, in a roundabout way, ‘no’. The fact that Mitchell was prepared to ask this question even after the Queen’s speech, which most people agreed kicked the issue into the long grass, shows backbench Tory muscle.
Harman in a sense gave Cameron an easier time. Her arguments were domestic and familiar and the prime minister could control them
Her main attack line was on housing. ‘Since he became prime minister did the percentage of people owning their own home go up or down?’ Cameron’s said it had been a ‘challenging time’ and he had introduced help to buy and made right to buy easier.
Harman said, in her no-nonsense way, that meant the percentage had fallen.
She then asked whether for every council house sold, a replacement one had been built. Cameron did not reply. The answer, she said was no, of course, it is more like one in 10. That, she argued, was pushing people into the expensive private sector and that was pushing the housing benefit bill up.
Cameron found this line of questioning uncomfortable enough to make him go on the offensive.
He asked whether Labour supported the policy he is introducing of allowing housing association tenants to buy their own homes. Harman did not answer but persisted with her questions. She might have said no, the Labour party did not support the right for housing association tenants to buy their homes, it was a nonsense and an economically illiterate plan.
But her refusal to engage allowed Cameron to take control and say the Labour party was against aspiration. He repeated this line later, saying Labour had been in favour of aspiration for about three weeks and now was against it.
Harman’s biggest problem though, was that she wanted more than anything to tease out where the £12bn benefit cut was going to come, but only policy wonks get the housing benefit point.
Stephen Timms, member of parliament for East Ham, tried a bit later on benefit cuts – this time asking whether the disabled would be spared. He was told that personal independence payments were more generous than the previous scheme: the kind of disingenuous answer which gives politicians a bad name.
Cat Smith, the new MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, managed to make Cameron look patronising. ‘When,’ she asked, ‘was the country going to get its AAA rating back?’ Cameron said she was the first person to ask a sensible question, more sensible than any of the leadership candidates and she should apply. ‘Throw your hat into the ring … go for it,’ he sneered.
Other Labour MPs got short shrift too. Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) received little sympathy in response to his question about what he described as ‘the worst crisis in the steel industry in 35 years’. Adrian Bailey from West Bromwich West, who asked about Dixon Carphone jobs in his constituency, was referred to the local job centre. Only Huw Irranca-Davies, Ogmore, got a bit further with his question on contaminated blood.
Perhaps the most interesting contributions were from the Scottish National party. They were not questions about Scotland, but about Britain’s moral obligations. Angus Robertson, the SNP leader in the Commons and MP for Moray, asked why Britain could not take in any of the refugees and asylum-seekers who were streaming across the Mediterranean and dying in the sea. His colleague Patrick Grady, Glasgow North, asked why Britain was deporting a respected rock musician and teacher, Dr Steve Forman, back to the United States.
It will be interesting if these fundamental questions of human rights and our international obligations come to dominate the next government.