PMQs sketch: No answer for the chuntering peaceniks

David Cameron takes on the chunterers
David Cameron takes on the chunterers

"We were very concerned this morning," Harriet began in a low voice. Was she about to reveal the Family Harman had run out of Bran Flakes?

By Alex Stevenson

After several weeks of being remorselessly ridiculed, Labour's previously abject deputy leader finally managed to raise her game against David Cameron in this week's prime minister's questions.

Thanks to a Treasury document leaked to the Guardian, predicting 1.3 million of public and private sector job cuts over the course of the next five years, Harman had a stick with which to poke the PM far longer and spikier than anything before.

It turned out all was well on the breakfast cereal front. Instead, jobs were on the Harman brain.

"The honourable lady should know..." Cameron began in response. Trigger-happy opposition backbenchers' obfuscator-detecting senses, perhaps a little over-developed, buzzed with alarm. They would make very poor players of Just A Minute. "Answer!" they yelled, outraged that the prime minister had not instantly addressed the issue at stake.

With a majestically patronising air Cameron deigned to address his hecklers. "I will give a surprisingly full answer," he said - raising his voice slightly with the air of one about to let them eat cake - "if they just sit patiently".

Now it was the turn of the government's MPs to contribute to the national debate. "Ahhhh!" they said, apparently as one. Were the whips holding up large signs telling them how to react?

It was at this point that the session, already more than a little ridiculous, descended into outright farce. For it is with great sorrow that our dear readers must be informed that the prime minister did not answer the question. It was asked by Harman on five more occasions. Each time the answer was the same.

Cameron confused the secret Treasury document with some Office of Budget Responsibility statistics conveniently supporting his argument. "I know we've all been watching the football," he said predictably, "but that's a spectacular own goal." The tables showed under Labour's plans there would be first 70,000 less public sector jobs and then 150,000 fewer. Labour MPs, unhappy for some reason, were told they were "chuntering". "He hasn't answered about the 1.3 million!" Harman said acidly.

It is the prime minister's prerogative, as the answerer rather than the questioner, that he always gets the last word in these little exchanges. On this occasion Cameron waited until Harman had sat down for the last time before sandbagging her good and proper. So much for the fact he had completely dodged addressing the Treasury's secret job cut estimates, after coalition ministers' insistence they could not possibly have a go at guessing the number themselves. It was time for the mockery. And what mockery it was.

Inbetween reading over those nuclear codes and addressing other vital matters of state, it emerged the PM had spent some relaxing hours reading through the accounts of Harman's old department. Among the dubious expenditure was £72,000 spent on two 'peace pods' which, he said quoting a passage of blurb which oozed New Labour, was a "21st century space of quality and light where we can relax".

Harman, flapping from a stationary position, had no reply as Cameron delivered the knockout blow. "They've gone from peaceniks to peace pods and bankrupted the country in the process!" It didn't matter that his gobbledegook didn't really make sense. Or that he'd risen above the responsibility to actually answer a question with carefree disdain. Yet again, the prime minister had proved that, in politics, mockery often trumps truth.


Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.