David Cameron today set the tone for his new style of politics when he began prime minister’s questions by giving the government his full support on school reforms.
The new Conservative leader had promised to move away from “Punch and Judy” confrontations as practiced by his predecessor, Michael Howard, and today made a point of proving it.
As he stood up to the dispatch box for the first time since being elected, Mr Cameron was greeted with cheers around the Commons, before expressing enthusiastic support for Tony Blair’s plans to give schools more freedoms.
He took a moment to scold the Labour chief whip for “shouting like a child”, before assuring the prime minister that the Tories would “absolutely” be giving him their support.
And quoting Mr Blair’s admission at the Labour conference that he regretted not taking his reforms far enough, Mr Cameron asked him to guarantee that the proposals included in the white paper on education would reach the statute books.
Mr Blair is facing a backbench revolt over the plans, which critics claim will bring in selection by the back door, and Mr Cameron capitalised on this by listing among the proposals that the Tories agree with, a new power for schools to bring back selection.
The prime minister was then forced to defend himself by outlining the differences between the two leaders, saying, “in this brand new consensus, we have to disagree”, and insisting that the existing code of admissions would remain and there would be no return to selection.
At this point, however, Mr Cameron accused him of breaking the new consensus, saying: “This is only our first exchange and already the prime minister is asking me the questions.
“This approach is stuck in the past and I want to talk about the future. He was the future once.”
Mr Blair tried a different tack, insisting that the Labour government was committed to matching reform of education and other public services with investment – something he accused the Conservatives of being unwilling to do.
Warming to his subject, he condemned Mr Cameron’s plans to share the proceeds of economic growth between investment in public services and tax cuts, saying this would mean “substantial” cutbacks in health and education funding.
“I am very happy to have this new consensus, but it has to be a consensus on the basis of agreeing that investment [is as important as reform],” he declared.
At one point, Scottish National party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond asked Mr Blair what “remaining differences of political principles” existed between him and the new Conservative leader.
The prime minister responded by citing the New Deal on employment, the European social chapter, and again, investment public services – and went even further, insisting that he also differed from Mr Salmond, in that he thought Scotland should remain part of the UK.
“I have differences of principle with both of them,” Mr Blair declared.
When Mr Cameron stood up to speak for the second time, he questioned the prime minister’s commitment to securing an international agreement on cutting carbon dioxide emissions to follow the Kyoto protocol which expires in 2012.
Earlier this year, Mr Blair said a more “sensitive” approach to tackling climate change needed to be reached, one that would include India, China and the US, and today he repeated this argument, and called on the Tories to support his plans for a climate change levy.
Half way through his speech on the importance of sharing new technologies with these countries, however, the prime minister realised he was on the verge of raising his voice.
“I’m sorry, I was pointing my finger there – I wouldn’t want that to break up the new consensus,” he said.