Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Come back Paddy Ashdown

PMQs have attracted quite a bit of attention recently as the public forum where the party battle is most obviously and regularly joined. So another analysis of how it went today seemed appropriate-though the similarity of these clashes will soon rob them of interest I suspect.

It is clear that Cameron has located Blair's range and offers an infinitely tougher opponent than the PM has so far faced since coming to power. His opening gambit of comparing Blair's claim that the Immigration service had ben 'transformed' some years ago with John Reid's offering of an 'open goal' by his admission yesterday that the Home Office was 'not fit for purpose', was a powerful one and Blair had difficulty making himself heard in a rambling response. Later Dave cashed in on his support for the Education Bill, which Blair would have lost without it.

Under Cameron's leadership the Conservatives are focused on pointing out the divisions in Labour ranks and exploiting the series of cock-ups which Simon Jenkins today witheringly dissects. It is hard not to resist the impression, similar to that gained in the seventies when Blair faced Major, that, despite his shortcomings, Cameron is the shape of things to come.

He had to struggle against noise in the chamber until Mr Speaker, in his best schoolmasterly voice, threatened to suspend the sitting. After taking a hit from Cameron first up he fought back, insisting on regaling the house with the improved record of the Home Office(how he must wish Reid had done the same yesterday instead of conceding his department was a turkey)and then with his government's record on he economy and health. I noticed once again, how questions from his own side, on knives and pensions for example had probably been planted to protect the embattled leader. The finest example of this- though I suspect the whips did not have much to do with it-was provided by the Beast of Bolsover, Dennis Skinner. Standing squarely between the two sets of benches, he immediately commanded the attention of a rowdy House. His rasping, gravelly voice cut through the hub-bub as he elaborated his question but it proved so amusing to the House that laughter drowned it out before it was properly put. Blair didn't seem to object. But how Ming needs such presence in the same context.

I thought of Ming an hour before noon as I was walking to the shops. Telling off Simon Hughes for criticising him is one thing; removing the source of the criticism is another. Ming's voice seemed strangled with nervousness and his follow up question on the Home Office merely replicated Cameron's. He had not shown the ability to think on his feet which PMQs demand. Paddy Ashdown would have walked it. Come to think of it- Paddy, are you short of a part-time job for the next couple of years?

And the result? A close fought contest with Dave narrowly shading it I thought.

As a researcher for a Labour MP who asked a question on pensions today, I can safely say that her question was not planted. Can't disagree with much of the rest of the analysis though ...
It was an intelligent and in no way sycophantic question but I wondered if the whips had learnt a bit of subtlety...
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