Short questions are always best. They get to the heart of the matter and it is more obvious if they are not answered.
Naz Shah, who beat George Galloway for Bradford West had the best one today: ‘As a new member of parliament I am still wondering if the prime minister does answer a question’. It was done with charming nervousness. Her real question about why Bradford was not part of the Northern Powerhouse was, of course, not answered.
Karl Turner, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull East, also went for a short one: ‘When is the prime minister handing the baton to Boris?’. David Cameron obfuscated on this too.
He did not have much idea about how to deal with Harriet Harman today either. She was in attack mode and did a good job of taking the wind out of Cameron’s gloating sails. She played nicely at first. Why would 16- and 17-year-olds not be allowed to vote in the EU referendum? It was, she said, ‘their future too’.
Cameron was still glowing from seeing Labour’s MPs troop through the lobbies yesterday in favour of an EU referendum – Labour under Ed Miliband had opposed a referendum. This was, he declared, the ‘biggest mass conversion since that Chinese general baptised all those troops with a hose pipe’. Cameron does not do buffoonery as well as Boris, though it is interesting that he is starting to try.
Anyway it was time for Harman to strike. ‘He won the election’, she said. ‘He doesn’t need to do the ranting, and sneering and gloating, he can just answer the question. Frankly he should show a bit more class!’ Cameron looked thrown. He never quite knows how to deal with women, let alone leftwing women. As a lawyer Harman was in her element. She is always happy with these questions of how the rules are applied to constitutional issues.
She argued that a blanket exemption to the rules around purdah, the system whereby civil servants and government cannot do anything which may be seen to be influencing an election in the six weeks before it takes place, should not be applied. The process of the referendum needed to be ‘fair and seen to be fair’, she said. Public funds should not be used on campaigning.
She also defended the Electoral Commission’s view that the election should not be held on the same day as another election. Again and again Cameron failed to answer these points. The rules around the referendum are dangerous ground for him and it is right for Labour to be pressing the wound and driving the wedge.
Cameron is trying to learn the lessons from the Scottish referendum so he has much more control of the outcome. But at the same time he has a whole load of backbenchers who want to leave the EU and will cry foul.
When Harman had dealt with Europe she went on to childcare. Cameron noticeably has more women on his backbenches and the Tories have suddenly shown an interest in childcare including a tax free childcare proposal. Was this proposal still going ahead in the autumn? Cameron did not answer, of course, except to defend the policy. But he did manage a jibe at Harman, saying he agreed with what ‘the right honourable lady for Peckham said … that people are relieved Labour is not in government’. Harman came back: ‘Perhaps we can have an answer not a gloating session!’
This was a win of sorts for Harman as she took more control of prime ministers’ questions and fought it more on her own ground. Cameron, ever the competitor, tried to wrest control back at the end by turning his fire on her, but it was not that successful.
Angus Robertson, leader of the SNP in parliament, got a bit of win on the living wage, by pointing out that the whole Scottish government is an accredited living wage employer. Cameron, while happy to boast that No 10 is a living wage employer, said that Scotland could only manage to do that because of the amounts of money pumped into the country by England. And he attacked the SNP for not being keen on full fiscal autonomy.
Alan Whitehead, Labour MP for Southampton Test, called Cameron out on the government removing its help for making homes more energy efficient. While Grahame Morris, MP for Easington where there is a large Nissan plant, asked: ‘When will the prime minister publish the Treasury’s assessment of the cost to the British economy of leaving the EU?’
Tories mostly sucked up to Cameron today with several questions about the long term economic plan.
But Naz Shah is right. The real issue today was why the prime minister so often fails to answer the question.