PMQs – Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

Some might argue that Prime Minister’s Questions on 13 July 2011 were a textbook example of what PMQs should be: a raucous chamber, a contentious issue and two party leaders hissing at one another. The reality, though, was a rather more disappointing sequences of questions which – while certainly exciting the house and leaving Speaker John Bercow rather flustered – did little to illuminate any substantive policy differences.

Nor did it particularly focus on the issue at hand, being dominated by a fruitless discussion of an apology from the Prime Minister over his staff appointments. Recent Commons exchanges have seen a large level of agreement on the gravity of the late News of the World’s misdemeanours, and the alleged malpractice of journalism institutions in general. As intended, a moment of anger flashed across Prime Minister David Cameron’s brow as he insisted that News International “stop the business of mergers and get on with the business of cleaning its stables.”

Mr. Cameron parried the inevitable jab about his potential non-attendance to a Commons vote on the issue, but Opposition leader Ed Miliband – who will be hoping that plumping for a ‘sack Rebekah Brooks’ position last week won’t go unnoticed by the electorate – wasn’t about to let go of Mr. Cameron’s hiring of former NotW Editor Andy Coulson. It had been suggested that Ed Llewellyn, Mr. Cameron’s Chief of Staff, had been informed by The Guardian of Coulson’s record at the ill-fated newspaper, and warned off hiring the man.

Whether The Guardian should have first refusal on new members of staff at CCHQ (Conservative Campaign HQ) is one thing, but Mr. Cameron did insist that he was going to give “a very full answer” in response to Mr. Miliband’s questioning on the matter. Yes, he said, some information had been given to his Chief of Staff. No, he insisted, the information wasn’t particularly revelationary (an assertion which Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger later described as), and finally No, Cameron made clear, the information wasn’t passed on to him.

Truth be told, the look on Ed Miliband’s face at this point had to be seen to be believed. To describe it as a mixture of offence and horror would not do it justice, not least because a cynic might argue that he had been practicing that particular expresssion in front of the mirror the night before.
“The Prime Minister has just made a very important admission”, he said, in the tone of somebody who had every intention of drawing out his moment of triumph. Cameron had admitted that the Chief of Staff had received information on Andy Coulson, and had not relayed it – so what, asked Mr. Miliband, was Cameron going to do to his Chief of Staff? Cameron’s response was to refer to Damian McBride and Tom Baldwin, both Labour employees of challenged repute.

Mr. Miliband’s conclusion was weak. His opening volley of “He just doesn’t get it” sounded rehearsed, and demanding an apology from Cameron for the “catastrophic error of judgment” (to whom should Cameron be apologising? The Commons? The police? Miliband himself?) just seemed like petty point scoring. He may have embarrassed Cameron a little bit last week by dropping Coulson’s name in his final question, but – deep down – it was dubious just how much the public would actually care about a Conservative communications director who resigned six months ago.

Unless Cameron was in some way complicit with Coulson’s earlier misdeeds – something that’s incredibly unlikely indeed – Miliband’s attempt to tar him with the same brush just looked a little bit desperate.
Bercow’s struggle to control the Conservative jeers may have made for good TV, and the exchange was certainly fiery – leading to some suggestions that the day had been a good day for PMQs. If that’s really the case then the bar has been set low indeed.

Mr. David Ward, MP for Bradford East, asked for a “pantomime interval” so he could bemoan the ludicrous insurance premiums expected of first time drivers. It might not make the front pages these days, but it probably matters more to the public than whether David Cameron will apologise for giving Andy Coulson a job.

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Posted on July 16, 2011, in Parliamentary Business, Prime Minister’s Question Time and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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