Coffee House

Devil in the detail

22 June 2011

David Cameron is not a details man. He has always been more comfortable with the grand
sweep than the nitty-gritty of policy. Ed Miliband, by contrast, is a natural-born policy wonk who is never more confident than when discussing detail.  

Miliband is trying to turn this to his advantage at PMQs and, for the second week in a row, succeeded in catching Cameron out on the details of government policy in an emotive area. Last week it
was benefits for cancer sufferers, this week it was the retention of DNA from those arrested for, but not charged with, rape.   


The Prime Minister is a good enough performer at the despatch box to get through these moments without sustaining too much damage. But the danger for him is that interviewers start taking their
lead from Miliband; that his media appearances become punctuated by very specific questions about his government’s stance on some micro-question to which Cameron doesn’t know the
answer. At which point, the idea that Cameron was not totally on top of his brief would start to gain popular currency.  

But, perhaps, the most noticeable element of today’s PMQs was Becow’s handling of it. He cut one Tory backbencher off mid-stream and denied Cameron even the chance to respond. This led
to Cameron gesticulating angrily at the chair and saying something. I’m sure some enterprising lip-reader will soon tell us what the Prime Minister was telling the Speaker. 

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  • arnoldo87


    My friends and family would be highly amused to think of me as a supporter of authority, so I do share your wariness of those with power over us. (I did the political profile that you recommended and fell into to the same south western quadrant as you)

    Nevertheless to take up your points on DNA directly. You correctly worry about the risk of DNA being “planted” such as to frame an innocent person. So let us take the two examples of “planting”:-

    1. Planting by the police or authorities. First of all it is not possible to “plant” any data held on the database, as this is digital electronic data. It is true that DNA traces could be planted by way of hair strands or cigarette butts etc. by a bent copper, but he could do this anyway as DNA samples are always taken upon arrest of suspects. The existence of a DNA database is irrelevant to this scenario.

    2. Planting by other people wishing to incriminate you. If someone is malicious enough to do this, then it is true that the DNA database would show you as a suspect.
    But all the “framer” has to do anyway is to tip off the police anonymously that you were at the scene and then the police have the DNA anyway if they arrest you for questioning.

    So, with or without the existence of the database, this sort of planting could happen.

    The bottom line, Simon, is that there are many advantages to the existence of the DNA database and very few, if any, specific unique disadvantages.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    Sorry about the underlining. This should just be to highlight the words “they want”.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    arnoldo87 : 7.29pm

    Well, the answer, I suspect, is a combination of two things:-

    1. I consider authority to be far less automatically benevolent than you do.

    2. I’m in a fairly small minority, and so my concerns, even if they are correct, will never be acted upon.

    So I believe there is a significant element within authority which will use their powers to get the results that they want – that are personally advantageous to them – and that society in general is too fearful of the consequences to allow such a thought to cross their minds.

    Now, arnoldo, if you are able to guarantee that a national DNA database will not only be a great help to solving crime, but will also not result in an increase in convenient victims being stitched-up for crimes they didn’t commit, then I’d be more supportive of it. But in order to do this, you first have to accept that everyone has failings; that rising to a position of authority doesn’t neutralise those failings; and that therefore in extending the power of authority we must ensure that we don’t exacerbate the consequences of these failings that we are already experiencing.

  • DavusMavus


    DNA is not 100% fool proof. The base DNA test only looks for certain indicators, these could be the same as a siblings therefore you do have something to fear.

    Also you seem to be completely missing the fact that in the past evidence has been tampered with in order to secure convictions of innocent people. No system is foolproof so therefore everyone would have something to fear.

    There could never be enough security to stop anyone determined enough to abuse such a database from doing so, and what of mistakes made when adding your DNA to the database, do you think that it will be carried out by highly qualified, highly paid staff? Whomever won the contract would ship all of the work out to where it could be carried out for the least cost.

    People shouldn’t be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.

  • arnoldo87

    Simon, old chap, I know you see yourself as a great libertarian champion, but so far in this thread, you haven’t offered a single reason why a DNA database is harmful to an individual or exactly how it infringes his personal liberty.

    Whereas I have explained to you the benefits to society in general and to the individual.

    Having said that, I do understand that there are other people out there who also believe that it infringes their personal liberty. Who knows, they may even have an idea why they do believe it. It would be nice to hear those ideas so we could take the debate forward a little.

    So – no I wouldn’t make them criminals. There are various ways of gradually collecting DNA without taking that route. But you could make a start by asking for volunteers – everyone I know ( of all political persuasions) supports such a database.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    arnoldo87 : 10.54am

    “Secondly, I am totally in favour of everyone being on the DNA database. Same reason – it does no one any harm unless they are guilty, and the scheme would save many miscarriages of justice that lead to a loss of individual freedom.”

    So what do you do with the tens of thousands of non-criminals who will refuse to take part in such an exercise because they believe it infringes their personal liberty? Make them criminals?

  • Andrew Fletcher

    Very clear now that the Party is starting to think about the “Post-Cameron” era –

    Lots of chat now of Osborne vs Boris

    Cameron will no doubt fight the next election but unless he was to get a stonking majority he is a lame duck

    Also lots of grass roots chatter about Rory S, Douglas C, and Daniel H

    Any inside gossip gratefully accepted

  • arnoldo87

    @Simon Stephenson

    First of all I am glad you agree that the retention of DNA for innocent rape arrestees does no harm to those individuals.

    Secondly, I am totally in favour of everyone being on the DNA database. Same reason – it does no one any harm unless they are guilty, and the scheme would save many miscarriages of justice that lead to a loss of individual freedom.

    I don’t believe in the the surveillance you mention because it DOES do harm to the individual. The retention of DNA is a passive operation, in that the individual can undertake his private life as normal. Only when he commits a crime where DNA provides proof of his guilt is his life affected.

    The monitoring of an individual’s movements in the manner you suggest is a clear breach of his right to privacy in his individual life. No such intrusion is present in the retention of DNA data, and to equate the two is a common nonsense perpetrated by so-called libertarians.

    In any event, WHO exactly would monitor the footage of all of our movements? We should ask George Osborne to estimate the cost of such an operation and the likely effect on the deficit, even though unemployment would be eliminated at a stroke.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    arnoldo87 : 7.36am

    But if the principle is established of crime minimisation overriding individual liberty, why stop at the retention of DNA records for uncharged suspects? Why not set up a DNA database of the entire population – after all, what possible harm could this do? If you’re guilty of a crime you deserve to be charged, and if you’re innocent it actually helps you.

    And why stop at DNA? Surely crime prevention would be greatly assisted if the authorities were able to monitor movements? Why not require everyone to wear electronic tags – after all, if you’re innocent you’ve nothing to fear.

    And that bloke Orwell had a good idea, too. Why not monitor both movement and behaviour by installing cameras everywhere, right down to private rooms in private houses. It would make it so much easier to detect and prevent crime, wouldn’t it, and, again, if you’re innocent why should it worry you?

  • HJ

    That’s what socialists are all about: Micro-managing everything from central government.

    The counter to this not to try to get involved in discussing the detail with them because this only reinforces the idea that it is a good idea to micro-manage from the centre. Cameron should just say “I leave better-informed people nearer the subject in question to make the decisions – so should he”

  • arnoldo87

    The elimination of the DNA database of rape suspects who are arrested but not subsequently charged is another example of the Tories going soft on crime.

    What is the problem with the police retaining this data? What harm can this possibly do the individual concerned?

    If he is guilty of some future rape, then he deserves to be charged. If he is innocent then it actually helps him.

    The DNA database helps to catch villains and prevent miscarriages of justice on innocent men.

  • Koakona

    Could the answer just be because they were not charged and their DNA was not found to be part of the crime they are innocent and therefore have a right as freeborn Englishman not to have the government store their DNA in a database?

  • Chris

    The speaker was spot on to cut off (whichever backbencher it was). He was rambling out a Whip’s statement that didn’t even amount to a question. Just a statement for Cameron to say “I agree” to…

  • Paddy

    Harriet Harman looks like one of those “nodding dogs” that used to be in the back of cars.

  • john miller

    “He has always been more comfortable with the grand sweep than the nitty-gritty of policy”

    Ahh, so that’s why he gets everything wrong…

  • Holly ……

    Maybe this is what ACP meant.

    Osseous;Composed of,containing or resembling
    bone- bony.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    dorothy wilson : 5.04pm

    “Acknowledging Labour’s culpability for the financial mess they left and then coming up with some realistic plans to deal with it would be a start.”

    Indeed, but this would imply a level of competence, statesmanship and intellectual integrity which, had they possessed it in the first place, would have prevented the catastrophic hash they made of running the country between 1997 and 2010.

    Oafs in government don’t normally become geniuses in opposition.


    Rape, minor detail? I suggest you say that to those who are victims of rape.

    The PM’s stumbling over details may not have mattered but for the fact that its featured in the number of U turns this government has executed in the last 12 months.

    Surely, its because the PM or his handlers lack attention to detail that policies are not being thought through and U turns have become the hallmark of governance.

  • Robert Eve

    I bet Cameron wasn’t as rude to Bercow as I would be!!

  • dorothy wilson

    The suspicion has to be that Milliminor is resorting to detail because he cannot face the big issues. Acknowledging Labour’s culpability for the financial mess they left and then coming up with some realistic plans to deal with it would be a start.

  • Verity

    Lots of new names on this thread, all,coincidentally supporting dead-head Davey PR boy.

    ACP, as entertaining as always … what does annoseus mean? Couldn’t find it in the dictionary. Assume it’s a Greek root? And assume the root is noseus?

  • Graham

    Dead Sillyband’s detailed questioning at PMQs makes him look very small minded…which is what he is of course.

  • Kingstonian

    Torontory – they don’t resonate in Kingston upon Thames any more than they do in Kingston, Ontario!

    I do wish people would stick to commenting on the thread and not indulge in some pseudo-clever babble that means f**k all to the rest of us.

  • Torontory

    The last few comments don’t resonate here in Canada. Are they in Québécois?

  • LibertarianLou

    Great piece; sums up why I never particularly thought Cameron to be up to the job.

    What was wrong with David Davies I’ll never know. Have some faith in the British public. Perhaps more people than patronising Cameron thinks do actually want a “real” intelligent Tory…

  • Sir Everard Digby

    Andrew Multi-Storey;

    you have been duped. Millipede is not asking detailed questions about policy -he’s playing to the gallery and looking for approval -is that the best the leader of the opposition can aspire to?

    To summarise,he wins the ‘debate’whilst asking for innocent people’s DNA to be retained in case they re-offend. Good idea. Line up all the expenses-fiddling MPs for DNA extraction I say.

    Luckily we don’t have any complex issues for him to think about……

  • Kingstonian

    Sorry, is this a private conversation or can anyone join in?

    I for one would like to know what the heck Andy Carpark is talking about!

  • Andy Carpark

    Whereas your [sic] the kind of numpty that thinks a kundela is someone who is still doing time on Robben Island.

  • Frank P

    But ACP is an extremely witty and well-written idiot; much better than a Kool Aid drinker like yourself; now that is a pernicious form of idiocy.

  • Perry

    Why spend energy and time speculating on how the H2B will respond?

    Savour instead, what his PR machine orders him to do (having ‘done’ a few focus groups, naturally).

  • Jane

    It is not feasible for any PM to know the detail of policy across so many government departments. No one expects this. I find the detail rather boring myself and I am sick and tired of hearing what individual bodies state on policy issues. I am not interested in what Rape Crisis thinks of removal of DNA when a defendant is not charged. We do not have the right to hold this DNA – I would be furious if I was arrested and not charged and my DNA was held. (My husband thinks differently). Further, the European Courts ruled in 2008 that we were not permitted to retain DNA on innocent people. Is this another policy – like prisoner voting that was shelved by the previous government?

    I did not realise that the previous government shelved so many difficult issues such as voting for prisoners, pensions etc. They commissioned enough expensive reports but were too frightened of making decisions as they would be unpopular.

    It does seem as if the labour Party are enjoying being in opposition. They are coming up with all sorts of ideas which they failed to implement in the last decade. I remain astonished at the brass neck of many of them. It is as if we have lots of money to spend and they seem to be encouraging interest groups. We have had MacMillan and now Rape Crisis quoted to us. What about the taxpayers view? Sadly, it reflects that the opposition is not interested in my views – they are targetting the votes of those on benefits and women. They are making a mistake.

  • TrevorsDen

    Carpark …. your an idiot.

  • insatiable Angst

    The Grand Sweep indeed.

    Did anyone ask Dave how is war is coming along, or was that swept under the carpet?

  • Andy Carpark

    Instead of trying to wrong-foot Boneless Dave with detailed questions about policy, Ed should try pointing the bone, the time-honoured method of execution in the Australian outback. If it achieved nothing else it would embarrass Boneless Dave at PMQs by reminding him of his anosseous state.

    Between 1998 and 2006, Ed Balls made several attempts to bump off Tony Blair by pointing the bone, all of which failed miserably on the grounds that he thought his own turgid member would serve just as well as an Australian kundela, a feat of cultural illiteracy which was to scupper his subsequent Labour leadership bid.

  • michael

    If Emilli is going to question DC on change he ought to know the small print of all hand me down policies at the click of a finger.
    the words Hypocrisy and open-goal come to mind.

  • Al4male

    I agree. The details should be handled by the minister responsible, and the PM cannot and should not be held accountable for minutiae. He should delegate as would any CEO and not be Presidential in his approach a la Blair

  • Maggie

    It is ridiculous to imagine that Cameron should know the minutiae of every sub-clause of every proposal, of every draft, of every consultation, of every paper, of every policy and no-one normal will hold it against him if he hasn’t got all the facts and figures at his fingertips.

    As to Bercow, he also told Cameron to stick to answering the question but he didn’t tell Miliband to stick to asking the question so Miliband rambled on unchecked, pointlessly and at length.

  • DavidDP

    Sorry, but do you really think people will expect the PM to know every single micro-detail of everything the entire UK government bureaucracy is doing?

    I don’t think so.

    It’s a debating trick – an effective one – but a trick nonetheless and one which doesn’t realy work outside that arena.

  • Baroness Helena Handcart QC

    Miliband is going to need more tricks than that. In any case, the issues won’t play outside the village and Cameron is too savvy to get caught by some TV interviewer, not least because access would be restricted or denied in future. It is a cul de sac as a tactic.

  • Sally Chatterjee

    Cameron is PM and whilst the buck stops with him, nobody can expect him to master every sub-clause. He should simply instruct Miliband to write to the relevant Secretary of State.

    Surely it’s a sign of Miliband’s weakness that he has to resort to almost trivial details? He cannot go on the big issues off the day but has to resort to smart-Alec style nitpicking. It makes him look petty, as if he’s spent all night trying to find a piece of trivia to throw at Cameron.

  • Chris lancashire

    Milliband’s ploy isn’t working even in the media. BBC 5 News only reported the exchange on the military keeping its mouth shut in time of war – no mention of the rape questions.
    Policy wonking is fine for Milliband but it maybe better if he does it alone and in private.

  • Private Schultz

    I really don’t think it’s the PM’s job to know every last detail of every single policy – he should direct Ed the Geek (which is how this sort of question makes him look to me) to the appropriate minister or department. And if the media do follow, he should do the same with them. It’s not that the details aren’t important, just that no-one can be expected to be on top of every single one of them.

    If Ed is really sincere in wanting answers, then he should provide advance notice of whichever bit of minutiae he would like to discuss.

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