Sketch: Masterly Cameron escapes his own weaknesses

Harman won today’s PMQs, but you wouldn’t know it.

By Ian Dunt

On paper it wouldn’t look so good. Twice David Cameron found himself in a dark corner and ducked the question. One Labour MP asked about his poverty claims in the Budget. It was well-aimed, and Cameron didn’t answer it. Harriet Harman, whose mechanical delivery is going down badly with sketch writers, had him on the ropes at least once. It looks like families on less than £30K – ie, not exactly rolling in cash – are going to lose tax credits. That’s not what was being said before the election.

But PMQs is theatre, not academia. Cameron has the perfect tone for his job. During the election campaign, it seemed as if we had exaggerated his political gifts. The Tory campaign was so poor, so utterly uninspiring, that it seemed as if his career was wilting before our very eyes. But in power he’s a different beast. He clearly loves the job and his response to the Bloody Sunday report, his speech in Afghanistan and his PMQs performances have proved him to be adept at mastering that unique manner which allows a prime minister to look statesmanlike without losing the ability to engage in efficient political stabbings.

There is still much that’s in his favour, of course, most notably Labour’s utter impotence. Even when Harman had caught him on tax credits, she ended her attack with “what the electorate detest is broken promises”. That just won’t do of course, when 13 years in power offer ample examples of broken promises on the Labour side. MPs on the government benches loudly mocked her. Ming Cambell got so excited he almost moved.

But it’s not Labour weakness that hands Cameron victories on the back of a violent, horrific Budget and a smattering of broken election promises – it’s his supremely effective manner.

There is a limit to that and it comes, ironically, from his political instinct. Occasionally it gets the better of him, and he makes the sort of political attack which sacrifices long-term image perception for short-term enjoyment. It was evident when he told the House, rather unfairly, that “cutting the NHS is now official Labour policy”. He then nodded cruelly at Harman – as if to say “have some of that, love” – and sat down.

His description of Labour backbenchers as the “dupes in the back row” made me giggle, because I am an unpleasant sort of fellow, but it only survived today because of the wave of good feeling he is riding on. The government benches are so deafeningly supportive of the prime minister that I actually found myself agreeing with the Speaker when he intervened to shut them up. But in harsher times, Cameron’s cold party-political streak might just contribute to his downfall.

A Labour MP raised a point of order with the Speaker once the session ended, asking whether it was acceptable “to describe parliamentary members as dupes”. It wasn’t a question of order, Bercow replied, it was a question of taste. Precisely – and that’s what could undo Cameron’s statesmanlike achievements so far.