PMQs verdict: Cameron just couldn’t care less
It was as if David Cameron was using an invisible blue rosette as his shield. No matter how grievous the problem he was confronted with, he deflected his answer and turned it into an appeal for a Tory vote.
Take his tax affairs. Cameron is a very rich man and is almost certainly coughing up the top tax rate of 45%. When asked by a Labour MP whether or not this was the case, his answer focused on the income tax cuts which the vast bulk of taxpayers are benefiting from. "Everyone will pay the price of another Labour government," he warned, apropos of nothing. Ed Miliband could only smile.
Stephen Hepburn, sitting in the back row of Labour's benches, managed to be splutteringly passionate without actually spluttering. "When is the prime minister going to represent all the people in this country, and not just his privileged chums?" he said, turning a fine shade of red. Cameron, mentioning income tax once again, explained how the only realistic option for voters was to back the Conservatives. And that was that.
Then Sir Bob Russell, the now legendary Liberal Democrat backbencher, confronted the prime minister about an expenses scandal on Essex council, which had seen a local Tory party chief splashing out on attending the Conservative party conference. "I do think that if people in Essex want good value for money, it's very important they back the Conservatives!" Cameron said. So much for addressing the council expenses issue. Why bother?
As he sat down, Cameron's face wrinkled up in a beaming smile. He seemed genuinely delighted that life in power was this easy. Everything is easier during an election campaign. No matter what egregious matters are thrown his way, Cameron simply twists the answer around into a decent reason why grassroots Tories would want to back the party on the issue in question.
These local elections are mainly a contest between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, so it was not surprising that the Lib Dems were getting short shrift. Russell was not the only member of the coalition's junior party to be rubbed up the wrong way. Tim Farron, seeking to get some prime ministerial momentum behind the scandal currently engulfing Cumbria's police and crime commissioner, looked insulted and thoroughly surprised when he was rebuffed by the PM. Then came Julian Huppert, the Cambridge liberal noteworthy for his enthusiasm for cycling. His question was drowned out by scorn emanating from all sides of the House. MPs were being "very discourteous to the good doctor", Speaker John Bercow said, in his only interruption throughout the session. "I can't for the life of me think why."
In the main exchanges Miliband did not make it quite so straightforward for Cameron. His decision to pursue the Royal College of Nursing's accusations about the pressures faced by accident and emergency was an astute one, as Ed usually performs better than usual when taking on the coalition's NHS reforms. Today was a bit muddier, though.
Instead of a sparring match over Labour and the Conservatives' management of the NHS, we were subjected to a messy set of exchanges in which claim and counter-claim negated any meaningful to-and-fro. The figures kept coming one way, then the other. Miliband talked of "total chaos" and "a system in crisis". Cameron accused Labour of being to blame for the tragedies of Mid-Staffordshire, where over 1,200 people died unnecessarily.
The PM's partisan use of the Stafford case was a little below the belt, but it didn't stop Tory backbenchers yelling "shame!" and "disgrace!". The Labour leader was very offended. "What a disgraceful slur!" he harrumphed. It had taken the wind out of his sails. And from a position of fundamental weakness, Cameron had once again emerged smelling of roses. No wonder he was beaming so much.
Cameron 1 – Miliband 1