PMQs sketch: Two clangers

Politicians, who as a general rule are better than most at public speaking, rarely deliver lines so agonisingly and cringeworthily terrible that journalists drop their pens in disgust. It happened twice today.

By Alex Stevenson

Twice, not once, did the hallowed nib plunge in slow-motion to the floor after two of the worst clangers in recent prime minister’s questions.

Gordon Brown has notched up his fair share of triumphs and disasters in his three years in charge. In what could be his last appearance at the despatch box he was very consistent in his responses to David Cameron, being repeatedly muddled by turbulent Tory shouting. “He has never given an answer on any single policy,” was one especially ineffective jibe. “He’s got it the wrong way round!” Conservative Shailesh Vara yelled.

So perhaps it was no surprise when he delivered the first jaw-dropping howler of the session.

His problem was delivery. In politics, as elsewhere in life, timing is everything. So when an adviser told him this morning that it would be a good idea to quote Cameron back at the Tory leader he probably imagined the prime minister might be able to muster even a little bit of delivery.

We all know the footage: the youthful David Cameron, telling Tony Blair “you were the future once”. Blair looked abashed, taken aback, disconcerted, exposed. Cameron was greeted with cheers of enthusiasm. It was one of those soundbites that sticks in the memory.

Today Brown tried to repeat it. But the conditions were not right: the PM was hurried by incessant Tory shouting, disturbed by interventions from the skittish Speaker John Bercow, and – worst of all – sounding deflated. “Mr Speaker,” he said, his voice dropping with weary, melancholy exhaustion, “to think he was the future once”.

The clunking fist missed its target. Peter Mandelson’s laborious speech to Progress this morning, insisting that Labour was “energised” and generally full of beans after 13 years in office, couldn’t be wider of the mark. Eeyore could not have been more depressingly forlorn. Energy sapped from the chamber.

The buffeted Brown was not the only miserable specimen messing up today. Like Mandelson, Nick Clegg had spent the morning laying the groundwork for this PMQs. His efforts to attack Labour and the Conservatives for resisting electoral reform were scuppered, however.

“He and he are trying to fool people…” he began, pointing at Cameron and Brown.

Shouldn’t that have been ‘him’? Labour backbenchers certainly thought so, yelling the correction repeatedly. Alistair Carmichael nodded desperately as Clegg ploughed on. His press team sat frozen stiff, trying not to twitch.

And Cameron? Oh, yes – the man whose next appearance in the Commons could be as prime minister. He spouted out the same old lines and delivered the same reliable blows as he has done for months. The Conservatives cheered and cheered; it felt like a victory rally, at which the Tory leader was the only grump.

Only the Speaker appeared to be unperturbed by the stormy choppiness caused by the looming election. “Honourable members are shouting each other hoarse before we’ve even got to the hustings,” he pointed out jovially. It was a novel tactic in trying to achieve quiet, which – as usual – completely failed.