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By Ian Dunt
11:00 – One hour to go. It’s a hard one to call this week, but the temptation for David Cameron to grind out some political capital from Gordon Brown’s U-turn on the Territorial Army will be irresistible. After all, he made a big deal out of it for two weeks running, so the victory lap is waiting for him, if he can manage it without gloating. That will be particularly pertinent given the horrific events in Pakistan today, which, under President Barack Obama’s policy, is to be considered as one with Afghanistan. Other issues, such as expenses and Europe, are far less attractive to the Conservative leader. On the first, he is not in a much better place than Brown, and on the second, he is vulnerable. To go into battle with Europe as the lead would be impressive indeed. Don’t hold your breath.
11:19 – In a few moments our lobby correspondent will let us in on any expenses-related comments from the prime minister’s spokesman this morning. Even if Cameron doesn’t discuss it during PMQs, there’s plenty of scope for backbenchers to run with it.
11:29 – Well I hope you weren’t waiting with baited breath because exciting it ain’t. The PM is sticking to his previous line (from June 10th if I remember correctly) that all parties have committed to the Kelly review provided it meets the three tests of increasing transparency, increasing accountability and reducing the cost to the taxpayer. “It is regrettable information has got out about it,” the prime minister’s spokesman said.
12:00 – Brown begins by mentioning the men who died in Afghanistan this week.
12:02 – The first question is on Asbestosis, which Brown describes as the worst and most painful disease imaginable. He will discuss it with interested groups and Jack Straw tomorrow.
12:03 – Cameron is up. He welcomes the U-turn on the Territorial Army, but manages to just about control himself. Can the PM explain “what on earth he was thinking of”? Brown says his thoughts are with the UN staff killed today. There are three stages, he says. We have to ensure the regular army has the numbers which are necessary. The second is to ensure the TA has those going to Afghanistan properly trained and equipped. Last, we must be able to spend on the TA given the conflict eating an extra £1 billion.
12:05 – This PM “can’t even be straight when he’s performing a U-turn,” Cameron argues. He describes the climbdown as humiliating. “It all ends once again with a complete loss of the prime minister’s authority.” Brown retorts by saying the opposition has got policies wrong in every policy area, including the economy.
12:06 – Cameron seizes the opportunity to talk about the economy. We’re still in recession – will Brown admit he didn’t end boom and bust. A journalist next to me says: “He ended boom, but not bust.” Brown launches a strong defence of his record and insists the Treasury only committed to being out of the recession by the end of the year. Cameron says: “I’m not going to let him get away with that.” Shouts of handbag. Cameron uses old Brown quotes suggesting we’ll be out of the recession soon. Does Brown accept he got it “comprehensively wrong”?
12:08 – Brown tries the headmaster approach. He says other countries had much worse recession, even if they came out quicker. The Tory policies would make the recession worse, he argues. “He got every aspect of this recession wrong.” Cameron says Brown can’t even be straight when you read his own quotes. He lists countries that have come out of recession – Japan, New Zealand etc. When he said we were the best prepared he was wrong.
12:09 – Brown says we’re better placed, because of the actions Labour took. Every country in the IMF and Europe is against the Tory policies. He says withdrawing the fiscal stimulus is the policy of the opposition. Cameron laughs at the suggestion we are the best placed, given the scale of the damage to the UK economy, which he says is now smaller than Italy.
12:11 – Cameron lists the things Brown got wrong. It’s a long list. Brown retorts: “Not one policy from the opposition today.” Now he lists things the Tories got wrong. This is the politics of children shouting at each other in the playground. It always is, I suppose, but today is worse than usual. “They are not fit even to be the opposition,” Brown says. Extraordinary noise. Bercow desperately tries to maintain order.
12:12 – Patricia Hewitt asks a question on India. Brown welcomes the Indian president to Britain. He lists the strength of the connection between the two countries. Relations will grow stronger, he says. Clegg is up.
12:13 – Clegg brings up the Copenhagen talks. He welcomes the PM’s rhetoric, but how would he characterise his green record over the last ten years? Brown lists his achievements – committing to emission cuts, abiding by Kyoto etc. He says the European Council will make progress further this week. Clegg says his record is one of “far too little, far too late”. He brings up Heathrow’s new runway, the extent of air travel, among other things. If he doesn’t act soon, he won’t be in a strong position at Copenhagen.” His position would be much stronger” if he supported nuclear power, Brown argues.
12:16 – A question on grandparents sees Brown go off on a national insurance line. Next to him, defence secretary Ainsworth looks redder than usual, which is very red. A question on the Afghan election sees Brown facing a question about how to face elections in the conflict zone. Brown says the last election had insufficient monitors. “This is not simply a military solution that we’re looking for,” he adds. He wants to strengthen local government.
12:18 – A question on investment for waterways earns groans. Bob Spink, who is simply irrepressible, and not in a good way, asks about Ghurka pension rights and whether he will congratulate the British Legion on its 75th birthday. Brown says the Ghurka question comes down to a High Court case.
12:20 – He also, it goes without saying, congratulates the British Legion. Jack Straw is moving more than usual today. He usually sits entirely still. Now he blinks like an animated Churchill dog. Why is the PM refusing to take power necessary to investigate Lockerbie? an MP asks. Brown says the terrible crime of Lockerbie will never be forgotten. He insists it’s for the Scottish authorities to pursue any new leads. Chris Ruane tells the PM “we live in dangerous times” and lists international concerns. Is Britain best served by being in Europe or forming an alliance with Islamophobes and homophobes? It’s an attack on the Tories new grouping in the European parliament. Brown loves it, and calls the decision to leave the centre-right grouping “amazing”. He adds: “They are out of tough with what people know is necessary for the future.”
12:24 – Tom Watson asks a question on an early day motion saying consumers to phone companies are being ripped off, in terms of inter-network connections. Brown says Ofcom is looking at it. His tone suggests something will come of this.
12:25 – Alistair Darling looks like he’s posing for a Victorian portrait. Alan Johnson looks like he has done something wrong and is hiding from the teacher. Not one question on expenses. Remarkable. What will it take?
12:28 – There’s one. What happens next? the PM is asked. “Sir Christopher Kelly will report next Wednesday. That report will form a statement to the House.” OK, not the most exciting thing in the world, but better than nothing. “We run the risk of being a generation of politicians who failed to tackle”… we all think – expenses – but Clive Efford MP goes on to discuss the environment. He gets shouted at so much he screams out the rest of the question, goes extremely red, and is promptly shut up by the Speaker.
12:30 – Brown is asked if he supports the need for clear skies, to help astronomers. Will Brown turn down the lights in Downing Street? Brown says “all of us have a responsibility to save electricity.” Bob Ainsworth gets up to make a statement on Nimrod, but we’ll leave it there this week. The round went to Cameron, but not by as clear a margin as it should have given he had the recession figures and the TA on his side. See you next week.