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By Ian Dunt
<11:15 – We would, of course, be starting our build-up to PMQs right about now, so don’t worry, you’re not late or anything. The debate has been moved back to 15:00 GMT to make way for the special service in Westminster Abbey commemorating Britain’s war dead. Come back closer to the time and normal service will be resumed – although one might expect a muted, sombre session given the ceremonies this morning.
14:44 – Well just 15 minsuntes until the session finally gets under way. If you want to get some idea of the sentiment around Westminster this afternoon, check out politics.co.uk’s Alex Stevenson’s account of the goings-on around the two minute silence.
14:52 – We can expect the debate to be on Afghanistan, of course, given the service today, and the political framework of the last few days. Cameron would be deeply unwise to lead on the Jacqui Jane letter fiasco, however. The tide has really turned against the Sun on this one and the prevailing feeling is that Brown is being treated unfairly. PoliticsHome just released a poll suggesting this is true for the population at large, beyond Westminster’s bubble.
14:58 – Peter Hain is just finishing off Welsh questions. The Chamber is almost full. John Bercow tells MPs that “the decibel level now is really completely unacceptable”.
15:00 – Jack Straw is talking animatedly to Nick Brown while, across the floor, Anne Winterton makes a forceful point on unemployment in Wales. Wayne Davis, Wales Office minister, tells her Labour is on the side of the people. Everyone’s waiting for the prime minister now.
15:02 – Brown begins. He reminds MPs that today is the first Armistice day since we no longer have any living fighters from WWI in Britain. He tells the House of those who have died this week. Anne Begg starts the questions.
15:03 – What is Brown doing to make sure troops have enough equipment, and when will Obama decide on troop deployments? Tough question from a Labourite. Brown says he has an assurance from the chiefs of staff that everyone serving in Afghanistan is full equipped. The Obama announcement will come “in a few days”.
15:05 – Cameron gets up, and joins the PM is paying tribute to the fallen this week. He goes for youth unemployment (the figures came out this morning). Does Brown accept he failed to abolish youth unemployment as he once said he would? I’m surprised to see party politics rear its head. Brown defends his record. “This was opposed by the Conservative party,” he stresses. He lists upcoming plans, and how many young people are getting the help. 250,000 of the number he quotes are part time students looking for part time work, and are not fully unemployed, Brown says. “No government is Europe is doing more to help young people into work.”
15:08 – Cameron says the PM is living in “cloud cuckoo land”. He quotes old Brown statements committing himself to ending youth unemployment. Youth and total employment show he has failed. Brown denies it. Fairly unpleasant stuff from Cameron. Brown isn’t much better, emitting his usual attack that the Tories opposed everything he has suggested.
15:09 – “The prime minister is completely wrong,” Cameron says, and says his plan would get everyone back to work. The PM should know about it because it was drawn up by Freud, who left the government to help the Tories reform welfare. Bercow tries to get Labour backbenchers to shut up. Brown again defends his record with statistics and money. He asks if Cameron supports the measure. Odd. Cameron dodges it and sells his plan a little more. He feels like the prime minister now, and not in a good way. Cameron is on the back foot, despite the fact he shouldn’t technically have been asked a question. Cameron reveals a leaked memo. Apprenticeships would be cut by 10 per cent, adult learning by 10 per cent and career development loans by 50 per cent. Brown says that every time he mentions policy Cameron “loses it”.
15:12 – Angry, bitter exchanges from the two leaders. “Every time he tries to talk about policy he doesn’t have a clue what’s happening,” Brown says. “He has given us the deepest recession since the war,” Cameron counters. Bercow once again tells government backbenchers to calm down. “They know they’ve got a party leader that’s lost it,” Cameron says, rather desperately. He says the chancellor was quoted saying he was trying to talk some sense into Brown.
15:14 – Brown refuses to answer a question from Cameron urging him to own up to the cuts. He gives a cut-out-and-paste answer about everything the Tories are wrong on. “He is wrong on every policy on the economy.” Cameron highlights things Brown got wrong – recession, no more boom-and-bust etc. Cameron does some kiddie maths to show departmental spending has to be cut. He also backs his policies. “This prime minister has neither courage nor convictions,” Cameron says. Brown says Cameron “gave a cast iron commitment on Europe, and look what happened to that.” he lists that which the Tories oppose, along implied ‘nasty party’ lines. “That’s why people want a Labour government that’s working.”
15:16 -Phew. That was a long and particularly bad-tempered exchange between the two men. You just can’t mask that level of animosity. With so many weeks dominated by a solemn mood around Afghanistan, maybe they just needed to let it all out. In a parallel universe, they’re probably lovers.
15:17 – Nick Clegg gets up for the Lib Dems. He reiterates the genuine sincerity of the PM – a remarkable act of kindness, given the hostile nature of the Commons. It is, of course, a reference to the Sun campaign. Quiet and subtle, but impressive. Clegg now goes on the attack. Why is Labour going to change housing allowance rules to take £15 a week from the poorest in Britain? Brown says the figures are not accurate. Clegg: “The response beggars belief. They are his figures. This is going to hit 300,000 of the poorest people in this country. It took him months to do to the U-turn on the 10p tax rate fiasco. Will he stop this now?” Brown says Clegg was the one who talked about savage cuts to public services. He says the proposals are just for consultation. “No decision has been made.”
15:20 – Alan Simpson asks a question on Tobin tax. Brown says it’s the first time the (left wing) MP has asked a question on his economic policy. Lots of laughs. Especially from Hain, who always looks like he’s about to have a hernia. Tory Tim Loughton reminds the House of Baby Peter. He says the LGA says 60 per cent of local authorities are struggling to maintain or recruit social workers. Why should vulnerable children feel any safer? Brown cites Labour action since Baby P.
15:23 – Ken Purchase accuses Tory and Lib Dem councils of closing care homes and evicting elderly people. Bercow tells him that “we can’t have an essay, we need a question mark”. Purchase persists, to groans, and asks for a measure in the Queen’s Speech for action on this. Bit late now, mate. Beside Brown, Alan Johnson is doing that thing with his hand that makes it look as if the home secretary has been terribly, terribly naughty.
15:25 – How does Brown feel about his former ministerial colleagues writing to him on childcare tax relief? Brown says no-one will lose it. But he wants to expand nursery care for two year olds. “No government has done more to advance childcare.” Still Johnson sits with his hand over his face. Andrew Pelling says we’ve all seen the “usual clash” but wouldn’t it be nice if all three leaders got together to have a referendum on Europe? Brown resuscitates his attack on Cameron for going back on his cast iron commitment.
15:28 – A planted question bores the Commons and your esteemed writer. Deathly silence. Brian Jenkins talks about the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold, recently discovered. He wants it turned into a tourist attraction. Brown agrees the gold should go to Tamworth. Gerald Howarth tells the Commons he met one of the troops who died recently before he went out to Afghanistan. He says he wrote that the troops were winning, and asks Brown to continue to try to get that message across.
13:31 – Phil Wilson offers another dull question on how wonderful Labour is and how terrible the Conservatives are, this time in reference to the NHS. Brown does a small party political broadcast. Jack Straw smiles about something. Something appalling, presumably. Phil Willis asks a question on carers Only ten per cent of the designated money for them has been spent. What will he do to make sure carers get the respite they need? Brown thanks the six million carers in our country. He says he’s determined to do more. He will look at the facts he’s given him.
15:34 – That’s it for this week, and, in fact, for the parliamentary year. We’ll be back for the Queen’s Speech next week, and everything that goes with it. As for the victor, Cameron was taken somewhat by surprise today when Brown managed to put the questions on him. Bercow should probably have been on top of that, but it provided a glimpse into how Cameron will react to the spotlight if/once he’s prime minister. The early notice is: not well. Once you take him off track he seems uncomfortable. Today was a draw – 1:1.