PMQs as-it-happened

By Alex Stevenson

11:15 - Good morning, and welcome to what should be a lively lunchtime in Westminster. Last week's prime minister's questions was the first clear victory for David Cameron in a long time, ending a run of victories for the increasingly confident Gordon Brown. Will the Tory leader be able to turn a one-off into a momentum-shifter as the general election approaches? Or will Labour MPs be the ones leaving for the extended half-term on a high? We'll be following PMQs live.

11:59 - Just a couple of minutes to go now until we get underway. Speaker John Bercow delivers his customary rebuke to chattering MPs as Welsh questions continue. "I'm sure the House will want to hear David Davies," he says, with the air of a gameshow host introducing a new contestant.

12:00 - Big Ben has just begun its midday bonging. We're nearly ready to go.

12:01 - The flamboyantly-haired Michael Fabricant talks about the "orgasmic experience" of eating some Welsh yoghurt. This excites MPs to an unspeakable degree, as well as the Speaker. Which is probably why he's allowing Welsh questions to overrun.

12:02 - Gordon Brown begins PMQs with the usual sombre note: tributes to the latest war dead from Afghanistan. "These are men of great character and commitment," he says. "Their sacrifice will not be forgotten."

12:03 - Labour backbencher Brian Iddon begins by saying he is "astonished" by the campaign against his party's social care plans launched in the Times newspaper. He wants commitment from the PM, who duly gives it (albeit with a grammatical howler): "I and the government is passionately committed to finding a better way of ensuring security and dignity for the elderly in our generation in retirement."

12:04 - And here comes David Cameron, who has recently switched from purple to green ties for PMQs. A small touch, we feel, but significant.

12:06 - Cameron picks up Brian Iddon's cause, quoting the Times letter from 70 or so councillors. "Everybody wants to help more with care, but why does the prime minister think that so many of the people responsible for delivering this policy are so completely unconvinced by what he's put forward?" Brown feigns mild outrage. "I don't know whether he's done another U-turn in policy in the last few hours," he smiles. After a brief stutter attack of "I-I know" he talks about Punch and Judy politics. "If he's going to have pre-prepared jokes he ought to be better prepared than that one," Cameron replies. "Not enough bananas this morning." A reference to Brown's dietary habits, there.

12:08 - Cameron continues with more quotes as he demands to know why many in Labour are angry about the PM's "handling" of this. Brown wonders why he supported it, in that case. "We have U-turns every day of the month from the Conservative party," he continues after an interruption from the Speaker. It's an accusation of "moral cowardice", after Cameron accused Brown of the same earlier in the week. The PM says Andrew Lansley, shadow health secretary, asked for private talks with health ministers but that consensus broke down last night.

12:10 - After a quote from Andrew Turnbull attacking Brown is laid before the prime minister, the PM dodges the question by retreating to a list of NHS commitments. He's struggling, here, as he attacks Tory policy. "He changes his policy almost every hour!"

12:11 - Cameron points out it's Labour councillors who are moaning about the social care plans. He wants to know whether all forms of a compulsory levy have been ruled out. Brown dodges again: "He should read the white paper... they can make all the noise they want, they can put up all the posters. They have no substance, they have no judgement, they can hurl insults... they are not the new politics. They are the same old Tories."

12:12 - Cameron asks the question again. Brown refers to the white paper, again (it's actually a green paper). "He has not reported it correctly." This is magnificent obfuscation from the PM. The Tory backbenchers, utterly unimpressed, are heckling so heroically that Bercow is forced to interrupt. Brown continues: "When you're dealing with social policy you seek consensus in this country. The Conservatives have deliberately broken the consensus that existed, even after they voted for the bill in the House of Commons."

12:14 - Cameron points out it is indeed a green paper. "One last go: are you going to do a levy? Rule it in or rule it out?" Much cheering from both benches. Bercow has a fit of "Order!" Brown says the "wall of noise will not disguise the fact" that the Tories don't have a policy on this issue. In fact it's him who's dodging the issue. "I have to say this is no time for a novice." Talk about recycled.

12:15 - Colleagues in Westminster seem to think that was a Brown victory, but I'd disagree. Cameron succeeded in pinning the prime minister down on an issue where the government is reluctant to reveal its true policy position; much wriggling for the prime minister followed.

12:17 - Nick Clegg is up on his feet, asking about pay levels for service personnel in Afghanistan. This gives Brown a chance to pre-announce the new compensation scheme due to be announced later. Brown is taking on his 'I'm taking this extremely seriously' tone. On the pay of the troops, he says "we have been determined to raise the pay of our forces at a higher rate than the other public services". Take that, nurses, teachers, firemen, etc, etc....

12:18 - Clegg says the troops about to go into the thick of battle have been let down by the government, which has presided over a Ministry of Defence dominated by "bureaucrats". Brown, still in sombre mode, points out that £14 billion on top of the defence budget has gone to the troops. "It is really not fair to tell our troops they do not have the equipment which is needed," he protests quietly.

12:19 - Stephen Ladyman, Labour backbencher, asks a question about funding for specialist nurses. "We are trying to transform cancer care in our country," Brown says, reading out a pre-prepared answer. "I cannot for the life of me believe why the Conservative party are rejecting the cancer guarantee that would allow people to see a specialist within two minutes," he adds. "I believe it questions their commitment to the NHS."

12:22 - Harwich MP Douglas Carswell wants to know about the risk of a British bailout for Greece. Brown is unable to give a straightforward no. Next, Westminster North's Karen Buck, whose Tory rival Joanne Cash has been in the headlines this week, raises her profile a scintilla by asking a question about neighbourhood police teams. Brown gets in another dig against the Tory party, saying "they're the first opposition party to run out of ideas even before they face an election".

12:24 - Gordon Prentice, thorn in Labour's left side, wonders whether the prime minister has visited his website to discover interesting truths about Lord Ashcroft. Brown is damning: "they have questions they have to answer". Unlike at PMQs, of course, when Brown receives questions which he doesn't have to answer.

12:27 - After a question on science and research, Labour MP Barry Gardiner wants to know about Sri Lanka's human rights issues and the coming Commonwealth summit. Brown utters some statesmanlike statements before Lib Dem Phil Willis raises stroke issues in his local constituency. He's unimpressed by the Tories' "self-congratulatory newsletters". Brown says "they've got nothing to congratulate themselves about". He underlines his party's commitment to dealing with strokes, including its keenness to introduce a health check-up. "They laugh all the time we talk about measures to improve the health of people in this country," he adds, in a scathing response to Tory heckling.

12:29 - Gwyn Prosser of Dover attacks the "carpet-bagging Conservative candidate" challenging him. Bercow questions the legitimacy of the question, but Brown jumps in despite massive opposition heckling. Bercow is really struggling to keep order here. The Tories shut up for John Redwood, who asks a miserable question about output. "If we took his advice there'd be massive cuts," Brown replies, apparently on default.

12:31 - Chris Mullin asks whether the link between old-age pensions and earnings will be restored. Brown refers to the Turner report, lamenting its original all-party backing. Andrew Robatham is asked about the "£50,000 slush fund for his leadership campaign". Brown says: "All donations given to the Labour party are reported by the Labour party, not by me."

12:32 - Gisela Stuart asks a follow-up question about Eurozone support for Greece. Brown is reluctant to commit to anything and utters a non-answer. Annette Brooke, Lib Dem, is next. Another Lib Dem health question about provision for the blind. The PM says GPs already have to make "reasonable adjustments" - i.e. make the writing bigger. The equality bill will help with this, too.

12:38 - I think the general consensus among hacks in Westminster is that this was a Cameron victory; but there is a significant minority claiming Brown performed better. Ultimately, though, the PM failed to answer questions about death tax, which means it was technically a win for the Tories. But by dodging the issue Brown has succeeded in making the 'death tax' claims worse. Fascinating stuff, even if it was more like Test cricket than Twenty20.

12:39 - And having concluded by fulfilling my mandatory PMQs as-it-happens cricket metaphor obligations, it's time to bring this commentary to a close. No PMQs next week, as it's half-term, so see you in a fortnight.


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