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Christmas cheer and humbug at PMQs

By Peter Hoskin
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Today’s session of PMQs began rather gently, even constructively. The subject that held sway was the military. Not only did David Cameron take time to wish our troops a Merry Christmas; not only did he announce that there will be medals for veterans of the Arctic convoy missions; but Ed Miliband also used his first two questions to ask about the plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan. At this point, not a creature was stirring — not even Ed Balls.

But the mood soured rapidly with Mr Miliband’s third or fourth question. It was about food banks and the increasing numbers of people using them. Here, Mr Cameron paid tribute to the work done by these charitable outlets — which Harry Phibbs has just written about on the Local Government section of the site — but was jeered as soon as he mentioned the Big Society. “I never thought the Big Society was about feeding hungry children in Britain,” sneered the Labour leader.

This presaged what seemed to be a concerted attack from the Labour benches, suggesting that the Tories are taking Britain back to harsher times:

  • Ed Miliband supported his attack on poverty and hunger by mentioning the recent sighting of Mr Cameron together with Rebekah Brooks. “Where was he this weekend?” he chirruped. “Back to his old ways: partying with Rebekah Brooks, no doubt looking forward to the Boxing Day hunt.”
  • David Anderson asked a follow-up question about food banks which involved the phrase “back to the 1930s”.
  • Robert Flello accused the Prime Minister of having a “Dickensian view of the country.” This, he added, means “workhouses for the many”.
  • And Ian Lavery raised the tragic case of one of his constituents, who, he said, had committed suicide after his discovering that he was no longer entitled to disability benefits. “This is 2012,” he implored. “We’re meant to be a civilised country”. It was a moving question, and another reminder that the Tories should not be blasé about the effect of benefit cuts on people’s lives.
For his part, Mr Cameron dealt with these questions punchily or — in the case of the last — graciously. His general point was a familiar one: that the Government is trying to contain the deficit, but is also helping the least well-off through measures such as raising the income tax threshold. But it also seemed to me that he mentioned inflation, and the importance of keeping it low, more often than he normally does. Perhaps the PM isn’t too keen on NGDP targeting, after all.   

As for other questions, there was one from Rob Wilson about the Andrew Mitchell affair: could the Prime Minister assure us that “no stone would be left unturned” in the hunt for the truth? And Mr Cameron’s response was carefully weighted: he paid tribute to the police in general, but added that “a police officer posing as a member of the public and sending an email, possibly to blacken the name of a Cabinet minister, is a very serious issue and does need proper investigation.”

And, soon after, there was another mood-shift — to end-of-term jollity. Labour’s Tom Blenkinsop asked the PM about his hunting habits. Kevin Brennan sifted through the Christmas viewing schedules to make a few lame jokes (“It’s Not a Wonderful Life”). And Mr Cameron returned with an extended gag about Ed Balls and Father Christmas and “give him the sack”, etc, etc. So, that’s the serious business of PMQs over with for another year. It was probably a score draw today, if you’ve been keeping count.


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