PMQs sketch: Doing down the Budget

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Opening Osborne's box has caused a lot of trouble for the coalition
Opening Osborne's box has caused a lot of trouble for the coalition

If this Budget were an underfire minister, it would have to resign.

Nearly a month has passed since George Osborne unveiled his Worst Budget Ever. Enough time for our politicians to get used to the measures it contains, you might think. You would be wrong. As this week's prime minister's questions showed.

It did not begin this way. Ed Miliband, sensing the public's ongoing anger with George Osborne's changes, immediately set off on a series of scattergun questions looking at the impact of the Budget on families with children, on charities and, of course, on rich people. Cameron responded by crowing about EdM keeping quiet over falling unemployment. That was too predictable. "Only this prime minister could think it is a cause for celebration that one million young people are still unemployed in this country," Miliband replied scathingly. He is becoming better at dealing with open goals.

A poor start by the PM, but Cameron was able to hit back quickly enough. He gleefully pointed out that, under the terms of the Labour amendment to the Budget being debated this afternoon, the 45p rate would actually be decreased to 40p. Helping the wealthy in this way is not what the opposition had in mind. The Conservatives howled with laughter.


Miliband, rather bruised by this, ploughed on. He had more than enough material to be going on with, but this was another uninspiring, insipid performance from the Labour leader. Such is the tentative nature of his leadership that a couple more weeks like this and the rumours will be starting to circulate once again. He did not skewer the prime minister, as - after the month we've had - he really ought to have done.

Part of the reason for this was Cameron going on the offensive ahead of May 3rd's London mayoral election. Thank goodness for Ken Livingstone, the Tories must have been thinking. Had it not been for Ken's questionable tax affairs Cameron would have had very little to reply with.

Cameron scorned Ken "paying less tax on his earnings than the person who cleans his office". This got the Department of Health's Simon Burns so animated that he earned a rebuke from the Speaker. "Be quiet, Mr Burns!" John Bercow declaimed. It was bad for his health, he observed, before it occurred to him to add: "You're the minister for health!" You can trust Bercow to tell it like it is, in as many words as possible.

During Miliband's last question the PM tapped his watch, pointing around him to the backbenchers. He wanted Ed to wrap up. A mistaken move, as it turned out. For although Miliband had fallen by the wayside, it was MPs of all sides who were standing ready to pick up the Budget-bashing baton.

With the occasional break for planted questions about Ken Livingstone, the Commons got well and truly stuck in against the prime minister. Kelvin Hopkins wondered whether the PM was still interested in treating pensioners with respect. Stephen Gilbert, a Liberal Democrat, suggested the pasty tax wasn't particularly fair when caviar was escaping VAT.

All this rather put Cameron off his stride. He made the mistake of accusing Labour MPs of benefiting from the tax changes, prompting shrieks of uproar from the opposition. Cameron was also very tart in response to Douglas Carswell, that radical reformer of the Tory benches, who has been complaining that Sir Humphrey's influence remains alive and well in Whitehall. "There are a few occasions when I think the honourable gentleman needs a sense of humour," he said, simultaneously grinning and sneering at the Speaker. It is never a good move for Cameron to play the bully.

All this left the PM in the perfect mood to take on George Galloway, that thorn in the side of - well, everybody. "As I was saying," Galloway began, resuming his outspoken parliamentary career before booming out a question about Afghanistan. Cameron, having derisively swatted away most of the questions fired at him, chose to treat the new member for Bradford West with the name of Galloway's party - respect.

"I know he always speaks with great power and great force," Cameron declared ingratiatingly, congratulating Galloway on his "stunning" by-election victory. Yes, he disagreed with Galloway. But this could not be helped. "I would urge him not to play to the gallery on this issue," Cameron pleaded, finishing the session.

Galloway sat in silence, back ramrod straight, looking uncharacteristically tense and brittle. Perhaps, when he has settled in, Miliband might let him take over at the opposition despatch box for a week or so? Now that really would be worth watching.

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