PMQs as-it-happened

Alex Stevenson By

11:40 - Hello everyone. It's time for a little-known backwater of parliamentary activity called prime minister's questions. This week comes the David Cameron Coulson Verdict Backlash Nightmare Scenario: Redux edition. Following jurors' verdict that the man he hired to be his director of communications had been involved in criminal activity the PM's judgement is under scrutiny. Cameron will face questions about why he didn't probe more deeply into Coulson's involvement in the phone-hacking scandal. It is one of the toughest PMQs he will have faced. This is what this weekly session is all about. Hopefully, it will be PMQs at its best.

11:42 - This is no time for Ed Miliband to miss an open goal, though. There is pressure on the leader of the opposition too. Miliband must, conservatively speaking, crush the prime minister into the dust. Anything less than that and we'll be forced to conclude that, yet again, he has failed to really demolish his opponent. Miliband has weakened himself by having that picture taken of him holding up a copy of the Sun newspaper earlier this month, but he should be able to come up with a comeback line to that. The Labour leader needs a good PMQs to shore up further waverings about his leadership. The stakes are very high.

11:44 - This is also an interesting PMQs because, very rarely, Labour have confirmed what they're going to be asking about before the main event. It's normal practice for the opposition to keep quiet about its plans in order to maximise the awkwardness of the event for the PM. Not today. Ed Balls told the Today programme earlier: "The question for the prime minister is: is a partial apology enough or do we have to look into what went wrong?" You can read more about the buildup in Ian Dunt's news story: Cameron faces his worst PMQs.

11:48 - Looking through the list of MPs expecting to ask a question, it's hard not to spot the name of the MP for Rhondda, Chris Bryant, who's number six on the list. He's been a vocal critic of the Murdoch empire for years.

11:52 - In the Commons chamber right now, the most interesting of the usual pre-PMQs question sessions: Cabinet Office. Francis Maude sure does hate public spending. And the unions.

11:59 - Some last-minute advice for Ed Miliband:
1 - Don't mention the Sun.
2 - Make sure you stick with the PM's judgement; don't talk about Coulson or the Speaker will jump on you for contempt of court.
3 - Have a decent reply ready when Cameron mentions Damian McBride
4 - Try and downplay Cameron's apology yesterday, which the PM will stick to as evidence of his contrition
5 - Move the story on. We've spent the last 24 hours picking over all this; now we need something new. A call for an inquiry, perhaps?

12:00 - News through from the Commons - when I had wandered away from my desk, obviously - that Bercow is going to allow references to Coulson's conviction. This actually gives Miliband a bit more wriggle-room than he will have planned for. It might even make his task more tricky.
Now, I wonder what will come up at PMQs today...
— Pat McFadden (@patmcfaddenmp) June 25, 2014

12:04 - And here's Bercow making clear the rules as well. As he explains, Coulson hasn't yet been sentenced and there's no verdict yet on two charges against him on conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office. The Commons' sub judice rules apply in this case because sentencing hasn't taken place yet, he explains.

12:05 - Bercow "in receipt of unsolicited advice" on how to cope with sub judice rules about Coulson, he tells MPs.

12:06 - Lots of supportive cheers for the PM - more than usual, that's for sure - as David Cameron takes his feet. Damian Collins, a Tory, raises Coulson to start off. He wants the PM to show support for the victims of phone-hacking above all else. "We should remember the victims, people who had their privacy wrecked," Cameron begins. A nice chance for him to make a little statement, effectively. He apologises to the House. "I am sorry, this was the wrong decision, but I think it's right that we've had a public inquiry in this country and it's right we have proper investigations." He gets a cheer from his own Benches.

12:07 - "Criminal" - the keyword in Ed Miliband's opening question. He "brought disgrace to Downing Street". Cameron "repeatedly ignored multiple warnings about him". When you put it like that it does sound rather bad, doesn't it?

12:08 - An odd defence from Cameron, who says all these allegations were being investigated all over the shop. His defence is that "the editor of the Guardian did not raise the issue with Mr Cameron" - that quote is from Leveson. "We had an exhaustive inquiry." Miliband says Cameron "just didn't want to know the evidence".

12:09 - A long list of warnings to Cameron are making up the structure of Miliband's questions here. That's a very effective way of making the point.

12:11 - "He made no criticism of my conduct," Cameron says of Leveson. The PM's main defence seems to be that he didn't do anything wrong - it's a misdirection which Miliband rightly corrects in his next question. Warning number three (number two was from the DPM, keep up) was from the New York Times. All of Miliband's questions are finishing with the query: "What action did he take?" It's certainly making Cameron sweat - he has to provide the same answer again and again in response.

12:12 - Miliband urgently needs to pull Cameron back to his judgement and away from Leveson...

12:13 - "No answer on any of the questions," Miliband says. He moves to the issue of vetting, scrapping the 'warnings' approach for now. His momentum takes a hit from another intervention from John Bercow. On vetting, Miliband says Cameron should have had "the highest level of security vetting as his six predecessors over the previous 14 years had had". That's a good point. Cameron again refers back to Leveson, quoting him saying it was the civil service that made the call. "Those are the correct procedures," he says. He then adds that Leveson said direct vetting wouldn't have made much difference. "He is so desperate not to talk about the economy, unemployment, the deficit, but you can't re-run an inquiry that's already taken place."

12:15 - "I'll tell them what's weak - it's failing to stand up for the right thing," Miliband says. He's just not being condemnatory enough.

12:16 - Next, the civil service. And here Miliband has a decent follow-up. A quietly delivered question about Sir Gus O'Donnell not talking to Cameron about it. Again, the PM says the Leveson inquiry revealed there was no such contact. It does look like Cameron is recovering here. He says Miliband is trying to "go through all the old questions... he didn't like the answer because he wanted to try and prove some sort of cooked-up conspiracy between the Conservatives and the Rupert Murdoch..." I missed the end of that because of the cheers from Tory backbenchers, who think their man has got away with it.

12:18 - Miliband is now bleating in sad-Eeyore mode. He says the big question now is that whether senior civil servants raised concerns with him or his office about Andy Coulson. "The charge against the prime minister is not one of ignorance, it is wilful negligence." That's quite powerful. He says Cameron will always be remembered for being the first person to occupy his office "who brought a criminal into Downing Street". Cameron's response is that he has "totally disproved" Miliband's arguments. "All of these issues were examined by the Leveson inquiry, but if he wants to debate the calls we make and the leadership we give I'm happy to any time because it is leadership that has got this economy moving, got our deficit down, that is putting Britain back to work and it is the total absence of leadership from the Labour party that shows he has nothing to say about Britain's economic future." The government backbenches loved that.

12:20 - SNAP VERDICT: Miliband 2 - Cameron 2. The simple truth is that the PM had responses to all of Miliband's points. There was no wrath in Miliband's arguments, no anger in his tone. He could have gone in so much stronger - John Bercow had basically given him licence to do so in advice given before the session began. It feels like yet another wasted opportunity for the leader of the opposition.

12:22 - And here's another dig from the PM against Labour, which he didn't quite get round to in his exchanges with Miliband. "What we had from the previous government was dodgy dossiers, burying bad news and smearing members of parliament."
An Andy Coulson Rebekah Brooks et al Leveson cartoon from a while back pic.twitter.com/BJVEJnBEnX
— Gary Barker (@Barkercartoons) June 25, 2014

12:25 - And now here's Chris Bryant, who's greeted with groans. He picks up on Cameron saying in his apology he was giving Coulson a "second chance". "He knew from the beginning he was taking a criminal into Downing Street," Bryant says, spitting the kind of bile which was missing from Miliband's questioning. Cameron simply says Bryant got it wrong. The PM waves the Leveson inquiry around like a very heavy flag. Bryant looks furious as Cameron demands retractions from him.

12:27 - And now a first question about the Juncker standoff - an issue which in any other week might have been the lead item.  "It is wrong to sign up to this power grab by the parties of Europe and the European parliament," Cameron says. That's quite a good line. He should write that one down.

12:29 - Philip Davies, the Tory backbencher who sits on the media committee, asks about Coulson. He makes the point that at the time Cameron hired Coulson there was no evidence of wrongdoing. It's an utterly useful question for the prime minister. "I think my honourable friend put it rather better than I did!" Cameron replies, looking slightly stunned (Davies is usually a massive pain in the prime ministerial backside). "Thank you." Weird.

12:30 - Oh dear. Cameron says he's "jealous" of the Queen for meeting the case of "Games Of Thrones". He couldn't even get the name of the series right...

12:32 - I suspect we're going to find out at some stage in the next few hours exactly how many episodes of "Games Of Thrones" the prime minister has actually watched...

12:34 - ... or maybe he prefers Oranges Is The New Black?

12:35 - There are actually important issues being raised in the rest of PMQs, but I must say I've been a little bit distracted.

12:37 - Here's another question on Coulson and the vetting process. Cameron bats it away again. What's more interesting is the ruffle of Tory disquiet there - they're obviously getting fed up with this yet. The collective composure of the backbenches is now rattled, even if the PM's isn't.

12:38 - The last question comes from Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, who wants a 'living rent commission'. Cameron goes on the attack, saying Green policies would result in no houses being built for anyone anywhere.

12:40 - And that's it. After Robert Buckland points out that the MP who missed his question because he wasn't in the chamber was actually having to rush to the bedside of his ill wife, the session ends. MPs rush from the chamber in such of lunch. Sounds like an excellent idea to me.

12:42 - So, what do we make of this week's session? I'm sticking with my score-draw verdict which, in the context of the expectations this week, must surely result in Miliband being knocked out in the group stages. You just have to contrast the energy of Chris Bryant's single question to the sagginess of Miliband's own assault to realise just how insipid Miliband was. Now, don't get me wrong. It's not that the Labour leader did especially badly. It's just that he didn't take the opportunity to really polish Cameron off, when all the circumstances were right for him to do so, which should be concerning for opposition MPs. Not that this isn't something which, in their hearts, they know already.

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