PMQs sketch: A dash of substance, then back to the playground

For a moment, playground politics submitted to debate.
For a moment, playground politics submitted to debate.

For a few moments it looked as if PMQs might slip into substance, but then the threat subsided.

By Ian Dunt

David Cameron has an occasional tactic at PMQs, the outline of which became evident today. He begins with two questions - essentially operational requests - on a matter of consensus. Last week it was the snow. Today it was Haiti and how aid is organised. He listens solemnly and nods, occasionally thanking the prime minister for his answer.

It exhibits a prime ministerial assurance, and allows him to furrow his brow in a consensual, adult way. Then, when the two questions are over, he opts for the harsh, moral issues of the day. Today it was the particularly unpleasant case of the brothers who carried out torture on two boys in Doncaster.

There was a silence. We all remembered the hugely bad-tempered exchange the two leaders shared when the subject of Baby P came up over a year ago. Brown accused the Tory leader of playing politics with the issue - and Cameron allowed his anger to get the better of him for a moment. That level of animosity was averted, but their exchange was instructive nevertheless.

Brown has his own tactics. Asked difficult questions, he kicks them into the long grass. There is always an inquiry or a serious case review or a report that he hides behind. This section is usually followed by a moral truism, standing in place of a final flourish. Today's was basically that children should not be abused. It's helpful, when politicians say such things, to remember Orwell's maxim that if no one could possibly disagree with a statement it is politically meaningless.

Cameron reverts to his man-in-the-street tone, although in this case the street is Kensington High Street. He has a far superior diction and rhetoric to Brown. Brown's sentences carry far more meaning in conversation than they do written down. For instance, "what we can most do" is baby-speak on paper, but you don't notice it all that much as he speaks. Cameron's language is precise and accurate, and he adds a dash of incredulity to his tone which is particularly effective.

The Baby P report wasn't worth the paper it was written on, Cameron told Brown. "I'm sorry he's moving ahead on this point," Brown replied. Cameron wants the full serious case review to be published in future, not just the executive summary. "The BBC, who have seen the report, say the summary and the full report don't match up," Cameron pointed out. "Aren't we in danger of having a cover-up if we don't publish the report in full?" Brown insisted the identity of children must be protected, and that voluntary organisations who care for children were opposed to Cameron's suggestions.

The tempo rose slightly. Cameron could see Tony Blair's opposition performances in his mind's eye, especially after the Bulger murder. "These are the ugly manifestations of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name," he said as shadow home secretary. It's good politics to accentuate moral failures in the country when you're in opposition. Well, not good politics at all. But it is good party politics.

And yet no crescendo came. The exchange remained relatively respectful, and furthermore, it had actually concentrated on an issue other than the two men's capacity for backbench rabble-rousing. By the end of it, it had begun to approximate something akin to a proper discussion. Brown didn't think so. Cameron was just asking detailed questions about something he hadn't read, the prime minister said. Quite true. And yet it was still more enlightening and substantial than an average PMQs. There's a damning judgement there somewhere.

Then Nick Clegg stood up, to be greeted by hundreds of grown men making handbag noises at him, and normal service was resumed.


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