PMQs As-It-Happened

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11:35 - Just under half an hour to go until the prime minister enters the Commons. MPs are currently asking questions on Northern Ireland, somewhat pertinent since Sinn Fein and the DUP finally agreed to work together again yesterday. Most onlookers are expecting David Cameron to focus on - surprise! - the economy this morning. Cameron's announcement he would detach Tory policy from Labour spending plans should open up a raft of attack possibilities for the Conservative leader. The main thing to look out for today is how well he makes that work for him, but the main event, of course, will be the Pre-Budget Report on Monday, where it should give George Osborne the impetus to prove his doubters wrong. Whatever happens today, let's hope it's more edifying than last week's spectacle, where Cameron and Gordon Brown's bad-blooded exchange over Baby P showed the House in absolutely none of its glory.

11:57 - A few minutes until Northern Ireland questions wrap up, but the mood in Parliament, I'm told by a reliable source, is entirely concerned with John Sergeant's decision to quit Strictly Come Dancing. And people say politicians are removed from the concerns of the country. Peter Mandelson, business secretary, has already admitted he wants a go, although the thought of that fills me with something close to fear. Apparently Brown and his wife prefer X-Factor.

12:01 - Of course we could have questions about this today. I'm officially about to take bets to see if a backbencher brings up the Sergeant controversy. Sergeant-gate? Forget I ever said that.

12:02 - Things kick off. A Conservative backbencher asks why the pound is falling so quickly. Brown does that nasty, pernicious thing where he compares the comments to being un-patriotic. Un-British is the word he uses. It's a pretty shameful response to what was, admittedly, an unpleasant question.

12:04 - Cameron gets up. He starts by thanking the PM for the Baby P inquiry, mentioning how he brought it up last week - purely for reasons of accuracy, of course. Brown says there's "unity and common ground" on the issue. "Where there is failure we change the system." And onto banks - Brown launches a defence of his recapitalisation plans. The government is in discussion with banks to make sure they start lending again at 2007 levels. Proposals will be coming "very, very soon indeed".

12:06 - Cameron's comments on small businesses don't do much to galvanise his front bench, which appears depressed to the point of amnesia. Osborne and William Hague are sitting too close together for my liking. Brown again defends his plans for small businesses. Cameron calls on him to do more. Labour backbenchers moan. Cameron appeals to the nation - as he often does. "This is about real people... who are suffering," he says. Is the PM considering any more taxpayer spending on the issue?

12:08 - "Real help means there will have to be some fiscal expansion," Brown responds. If the Tory leader will support that "it will be a change from yesterday, but welcome". Cameron says he asked what was happening, and that Brown didn't really answer it. That's not quite true. Cameron then turns to the Pre-Budget Report. Everyone wants to know how Brown will pay for spending/borrowing. Will he admit there needs to a raise in taxes?

12:10 - Brown doesn't answer the question. Tories make a lot of noise. The Speaker stands up and says: "The prime minister is answering. He may not be answering the question the opposition want him to answer, but he's answering." You know you're in trouble when the Speaker himself points out your evasion.

12:11 - "On this side of the House we've made our choice. It's called spending restraint." That's a good line from Cameron, an early sign of improved performance on the economic issue resulting from yesterday's speech. Brown comes back strong, responding to a Cameron joke about him not knowing the difference between fiscal and monetary policy with some glib headmasterly tones and a couple of counter-accusations. His main point is that monetary policy can't fix things on its own.

12:12 - Cameron says a former economic advisor to the government said this when told the government was not responsible for the current crisis: "That is largely drivel, frankly." Ouch. Cameron is performing better than he has been for a few weeks but he's still considerably below par. Brown retorts: "They all shout, but only a few days ago the leader of the opposition himself said borrowing had to happen. Then he changed his mind." Brown continues to frame the debate in terms of Labour wanting to help people and the Tories doing nothing.

12:15 - Brown just said "help people" many, many times. We got absolutely nothing out of that exchange, except that the Tories remain confused but are improving very slightly and that Brown just can't stop proving how party political he is. More on this later, but Nick Clegg is up for the Lib Dems.

12:16 - What concrete evidence does the PM have that the recapitalisation plan is working? Brown says some banks wouldn't exist if he hadn;t done it (and thanks CXlegg for his support on that). He's meeting banks all the time to discuss technical and lending issues. If we take further measures it will cost money, "and I hope he will support us when we do it." Clegg calls that response "complacent" saying Brown likes "strutting" on the world stage saying his plan is better than everyone else's plan. Will he consider lending serious money to businesses instead? Brown says the fact so many banks aren't taking bonuses shows the government is having some success. He then goes on about building confidence in the financial system. There was no answer there, by the way.

12:19 - The benches behind Brown: Geoff Hoon looks like he's just done something naughty somewhere and is right now wondering if there's a way he'll get caught. He almost certainly has done something naughty. It's in his nature. Ed Balls has been nodding his head for a full twenty minutes now. He occasionally pauses while a Tory says something, and then begins again. Alan Johnson has slid so far down his bench he looks like a weirdly aged child. Jack Straw looks unflappable in that strange, unconvincing of his.

12:23 - A Labour MP wants more action on smoking. What is there left to do? Make it illegal? There's a new national tobacco control plan for 2009. God help us.

12:24 - Will the Pre-Budget Report prove the government's commitment to the North Sea industry? Not the most exciting question the House has ever heard. There'll be work done so existing fields can be harvested for oil using new technology, Brown says.

12:26 - Educational maintenance allowances have still not been delivered. Brown says there'll be an announcement on this in the next few hours, but that the private company responsible clearly isn't working well enough. He doesn't take the questioner's invitation to extrapolate conclusions about the use of private companies to do this sort of thing, surprisingly enough.

12:27 - Brown says he'll make sure the legal minimum wage is applied across the country. There's be legislation to make sure tips can't be used to top it up. An MP mentions "the real world" in a question on bank lending. The mere mention of the phrase 'real world' makes MPs across the House laugh.

12:29 - Can the PM promise to remember pensioners in any fiscal spending? Brown says he wants to help pensioners. That sounds about right. I can't imagine him standing up to say he wants to make life worse for them. He then attacks the Tories again - saying they're unwilling to help people "in these difficult times". I may still be able to hear Brown using that phrase in my sleep, he's said it so much, like some awful song you hear in a bar. OK that's it for this week, which has been unnaturally tepid. The Tories were slightly better than recently, but no major changes. See you next week.


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