It was the croc that didn’t snap, the firework that failed to fly, the jeroboam that refused to go pop. Last week, David Cameron’s speech on Europe was supposed to heal a two-decade rift within the Tory family and to set Britain on a bold new course in our relationship with the continent. A week later and the great In-Out gamble didn’t rate a mention at PMQs. Not a peep. Not a syllable. Not a whisper. Ed Miliband didn’t bring it up either.
Their mutual silence isn’t hard to explain. Both parties are acting tough but remain vulnerable on the referendum question. Cameron will accuse Miliband of not trusting the voters. Miliband will accuse Cameron’s MPs of not trusting Cameron. Hence the non-aggression pact.
Instead they gave us a bubble-and-squeak debate on economics. It consisted entirely of re-heated slops. Miliband wheedled at the prime minister for failing to revive the economy and Cameron wheedled back that he hadn’t ruined it in the first place. They were like a married couple bickering over a sat-nav error while the car plummets down a mountainside.
Both wanted to bludgeon the other with impressive-sounding quotes. Miliband declared that the IMF’s chief economist had called for ‘a reassessment’ of the UK’s fiscal policy. Cameron rubbished this and said the IMF’s managing director had praised the Coalition for its ‘fiscal consolidation.’ The only result is to undermine the IMF’s credibility. I wonder if anyone will notice.
Labour’s backbenches had more luck. They’ve been teasing Cameron for ages by asking him if he plans to visit to a food bank. Plump, sleek and pinkish around the chops, the prime minister is extremely sensitive to the charge that he’s a heartless, arrogant, fox-hunting, granny-starving, pleb-thrashing, cripple-whipping posh-boy. And today he surprised his critics with a diary announcement. He plans to visit a free food centre in his own constituency soon. He then ruined things slightly by turning the issue into a gloat. Reliance on food banks, he said, began under Labour and soared tenfold while they were in power.
Cameron’s tricky meeting with his under-fed voters will no doubt be held in secret. The best we can hope for is a sneaked-out phone-clip showing the PM arriving in his plus-fours to donate a Fortnum’s hamper accompanied by a greetings card printed on note-paper from SamCam’s firm wishing his empty-bellied constituents the best of luck during the lean winter months. Or so Labour will hope.
Alex Cunningham found golden wit in the dull topic of nutritional laws. ‘On food safety,’ said the Labour backbencher. ‘May I ask if traces of stalking horse been found in the Conservative food chain?’ A reference to Adam Afriyie’s bumptious leadership plot. Cameron dealt with it ironically.
‘This party has always stood for people who want to work hard and get on. And I’m glad those behind me take that very seriously indeed!’
The session ended with a blood-soaked question from George Galloway. Referring to the latest troop-surge in Mali, he invited the PM to ‘adumbrate the differences between the throat-slitting jihadists’ of north Africa and ‘the equally bloodthirsty jihadist’ in Syria. Easy to answer convincingly but Cameron descended to mere abuse. ‘Wherever there is a brutal Arab dictator in the world, he will have the support of the right honourable gentleman.’
A pity he served up a slur rather than an argument against Galloway who, if nothing else, is a formidable debater.
But Cameron seemed in a hurry to get away. No doubt he was off to Fortnums to fill a silk-lined trunk with luxury edibles for his ravening electorate.