PMQs as-it-happened

Prime minister's questions as it happened
Prime minister's questions as it happens

Follow our live coverage as David Cameron and Ed Miliband clash for the last time before 2011's party conferences.

By Alex Stevenson 

11:00 - Good morning everyone, and welcome to this week's live coverage of prime minister's questions. The pressure is on Ed Miliband and David Cameron to perform, after they put in a performance last week about as inspiring as Tony Benn doing pantomime. Actually, scratch that. Benn in panto would be quite good.

11:04 - But seriously. We were expecting a return to the usual fireworks last week, and were disappointed when Ed Miliband produced a polished performance utterly devoid of personality. It took Nadine Dorries, who even right-wing sketchwriters have struggled to compliment beyond praising her "heart", to liven things up. If I were you I'd brush up on the "frustrated" incident in our sketch, which you can read here.


11:15 - It may be that Miliband just takes a week to feel his way into these things. The lowest point of his leadership so far came after that dreadful performance in PMQs, the first after his return from honeymoon. Maybe he just takes some time to get warmed up and thoroughly into the spirit of things. With parliament dispersing again for the three-week conference season after this week, let's hope he gets the party faithful worked up with a passionate performance today.

11:24 - One thing's for certain: yesterday's boos and heckling as Miliband addressed the TUC Congress will have safeguarded the Labour leader against the usual jibes from Cameron about him being in the pocket of the unions. Well, it should do. The PM isn't a man to be put off easily when there's a political point to be scored. Cameron may just decide to switch to his other tactic - scathing humour - along the lines of 'he can't even get the unions to like him'.

11:30 - The day's Commons sitting is just getting underway now. This week's warm-up for PMQs is Scottish questions, which gives Lib Dem Cabinet minister Michael Moore another opportunity to clock up some time at the despatch box.

11:40 - Some lines filtering out of this morning's lobby briefing. The prime minister's spokesman has been on the defensive when it comes to unions' threat of further strike action over public sector pensions. The best way forward is to continue with talks, he says, calling the balloting for industrial action "disappointing". Public sector pensions in Britain are some of the best in the world, he argues. Will Miliband take up the public sector pensions baton at PMQs? It would go a long way towards making up with the unions after yesterday, that's for sure. But it would also be risky, too...

11:54 - Good heavens - PMQs is only a few minutes away from starting. There's always a sense at this time of the political week that events are coming thick and fast. The last hour has seen the political and constitutional reform committee issue a report complaining that the government's ignoring its recommendations about going to war; Labour have put out a line on the strikes, saying they're "usually a sign of failure"; and the Institute for Government is telling us that Whitehall is leading the way in headcount reductions, with an overall reduction of 8.4% since the comprehensive spending review in October last year. Busy busy busy...

11:56 - Michael Moore, in the chamber, is being questioned about the West Lothian commission and related devolution issues. "What we now have the opportunity to do is ensure we consider carefully the issues first posed famously in 1977, but as we have seen devolution develop in recent years, become more and more urgent for people to address," he says. A commission was established last week examining the issue.

11:59 - OK, the prime minister is now in his seat. Tie report: navy blue, thoroughly conservative. William Hague has gone for a more alarming salmon pink. Very UK-ambassador-in-the-Middle-East-esque.

12:00 - The House is in a very excitable state," Speaker John Bercow complains. Nick Clegg arrives (slinky red tie), fresh from his LSE speech. I think those two sentences were unrelated, but I can't be 100% sure.

12:00 - "I want to hear Mr Angus MacNeil," Bercow says optimistically. Loud hear-hears, some sarcastic, others less so. "It seems you're not alone," the SNP member for the Western Isles says slyly. David Cameron is leafing through his notes - and it's time to begin.

12:03 - After a local issue from Alex Cunningham about coroners' services. Then comes Mary MacLeod, who wants to know about Alexander Litvinenko. "The British government has not changed its view one jot," Cameron says. But he says it's right, nonetheless, to build a better relationship with Russia. He lists the two countries' "common interests".

12:04 - Ed Miliband is up next, raising the unemployment figures, which are up 80,000. The PM says they're disappointing. "I don't want to hide from that," he says slowly, before building with a list of the steps the coalition is taking to tackle the issue. At the same time, he says, "It is right we get on top of our debts and our deficits". Very neatly built answer, really. But Miliband comes up by saying it's all about results, not "spin" on the Work Programme.

12:06 - Cameron responds by saying that there are more people in work than there are a year ago. "There is not one ounce of complacency in this government about the need to do more to help people back to work," he says, being thoroughly forceful. Another list follows. Bit of a Gordon Brownish habit developing there. But Miliband responds: "He and this government are byyyyy-word for complacency in this country!" (number of y's indicates high pitch). Next Miliband raises cuts in the child tax credit...

12:08 - The best form of defence is offence, it seems. Cameron attacks Labour's record on helping families, before explaining how the tax credit system is being focused on the poorest people in this country. And then he takes the offensive to another level: "He must be the only person in the world who thinks you spend more to get out of a debt crisis." Yet again, Miliband responds with high-pitchedness - but very effectively. He says the PM was wrong - youth unemployment has been rising after all, he says. "For every two jobs being cut in the public sector, less than one is being created in the private sector. Isn't that the clearest sign yet his policy just isn't working?" Cameron gets a laugh as he wonders why Miliband wants to raise Labour's "golden inheritance".

12:10 - Miliband is distinctly miffed. "What an insult to the millions of people up and down this country who have lost their jobs!" he says, presenting Britain's miserable economic growth to Cameron. The Labour frontbench can't help looking somewhat pleased at this. "Let me correct him on his facts," Cameron says. "The fact is Britain is growing faster than America. That's something he chooses not to tell us." That riles Labour backbenchers; Miliband was perfectly accurate, after all. I can't help finding that very irritating. It's the kind of thing which undermines PMQs. But then, hey - that's politics.

12:13 - Certain allegations about George Osborne leave the Commons writhing with mirth. "The chancellor of the exchequer has lashed himself to the mast," Miliband says, apparently referring to the economy. If he was fishing for an underhand backbencher comment which sets off MPs in helpless laughter, it worked. "Not for the first time, perhaps," Miliband adds, riding the laughter. Osborne himself looks like he's squirming uncomfortably inside.

12:14 - Miliband has a decent finish: "It turns out he's like all the others. For him, unemployment is a price worth paying." But Cameron finishes strongly too, bouncing back to attack Labour's record once more. "The truth is it was the last government that robbed young people of their future by piling up the debt," he seethes. A strong cheer from the Tories greets the end of a much more lively set of exchanges than last week's. Hurrah!

12:16 - A fair amount of laughter greets a question from SNP MP Angus MacNeil, who points to a poll showing 68% of Scots want oil revenues devolved to Scotland, Cameron replies: "If you ask a stupid question you get a stupid answer." He's getting really very good at coming up with these scathing put-downs. Cameron the politician, not Cameron the schoolboy, adds: "The fact is the whole of the UK has invested in the North Sea, the whole of the UK should benefit from the North Sea."

12:19 - Father of the House Sir Peter Tapsell, the ultimate Tory grandee, is next. His wise words are as follows: "Was my right honourable friend taught at whatever school he happened to attend (laughter) that one of the key functions of parliament over the centuries has been to diminish what the (something) have called the overmighty subject? In the 18th century..." - interruption, laughter, then support from Bercow - "I want to hear the honorary gent's views about the 18th century!" Oh crikey, he's going on about Indian Nabobs, and ruthless industrialists... And in the 20th century it was the trade union leaders "tamed by Lady Thatcher", Sir Peter continues. "Today, the almighty subject is the bankers," Sir Peter says. Still no sign of a question. "In the United States... (groans) the federal authorities are prosecuting a wide swathe of the top banks. When is that going to happen here?" Cheers. If you're the oldest member, you can get away with almost anything. Cameron says it's very good to hear Sir Peter say something positive about Margaret Thatcher - and that he obviously went to a much better school than him. Wow. That was quite something. Sir Peter always gives good value for money.

12:21 - Apropos of almost nothing, Cameron remarks at the end of one question: "When I have a meeting with the chancellor of the exchequer, it's nothing like going to the dentist and there's no need for anaesthetic." What a session this is turning into.

12:22 - Gordon Birtwhistle, one of the more anonymous Lib Dem backbenchers, asks a question about Burnley Football Club. Cameron says he was struck by Burnley's work. Well. Good, then.

12:24 - Finally, a chance to consider who actually came out on top of the main event in this week's PMQs. I'd say it was probably a scoring draw; both sides made their points, neither polished off the other. Miliband was more impassioned than usual, which always helps. Still, he didn't do enough to make Cameron feel especially uncomfortable.

12:26 - A neat little dig against the shadow chancellor Ed Balls from Cameron there, who the PM claims is "wrong about everything, even when he's sitting down". Balls is sat with his wife, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, between him and Miliband. Meanwhile, I've just spotted a Tory MP catching 40 winks. He's woken up by a sudden burst of laughter. For shame, for shame! It's not even lunchtime.

12:28 - A couple of questions on Bombardier, the train company which looks like it's lost out to build trains for a major contract. "We want to keep Bombardier working, and that is why there is this new opportunity," Cameron says, referring to the coalition's commitment to look against at the issue. "This is a government that wants to do more for our railway industry and wants to do more for Bombardier after they were so badly let down by the last government."

12:31 - The riots are raised, and linked to the police funding issue by a Labour MP. Cameron doesn't buy it, claiming the two are completely unrelated. Then follows a question about planning. Hague looks rather bored behind him - quite a contrast from Osborne, who has been nodding enthusiastically at everything Cameron says for the last half-hour. Rather a quiet ending to the session, here.

12:33 - On women in government, Cameron has this to say. "It's not enough just to open the door and say it's meritocratic... there are occasions when you need to take positive action to get things done." Was that a Tory PM supporting positive discrimination, perhaps? Not quite clear what he meant, there...

12:34 - Richard Harrington gets the last question, which is on the murder of a British citizen in Kenya. "We are doing everything we can on this desperately tragic case," Cameron says gravely. And that's the end of that.

12:35 - I'm going to wrap up this live coverage very quickly, as MPs completely ignore Speaker Bercow's pleas for a quiet exit. Time to write a news story, I think. It's all about unemployment this week...
 

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