PMQs verdict: Far, far too easy for Cameron
After the challenge of making small talk with Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel, David Cameron found the Commons to be a complete doddle this week. Everything in his body language suggested he found what should be a demanding, challenging session hardly more difficult than a stroll in the park.
Between answering questions during PMQs he sits forward on the green frontbench. He faces to his left, where William Hague and George Osborne sit ready to mutter brief snippets of advice if needed. Doing so involves turning his back on Nick Clegg, which doesn't matter to anyone in the slightest. Cameron's eyes are usually gazing down into nothing, the way awkward commuters do on crowded trains. But where their eyes are glazed over by another day's mind-numbing toil in the City, the prime minister's have something of a sparkle in them. He knows when he is winning, and this week everything about his demeanour showed this is one of those occasions.
Cameron doesn't seem to resent Osborne's contributions. While Ed Balls makes obscure hand gestures at the government, intent on making himself as visible as possible, Osborne's focus in entirely on providing his leader with the ammo needed to polish off Ed Miliband. That this irks the leader of the opposition was made clear when he paused his scripted questions and attempted to make an informal complaint. "The part-time chancellor's trying to give some advice to the prime minister," he observed, prompting nothing but grins from George Osborne. "I would rather listen to my chancellor than listen to his neighbour the shadow chancellor," Cameron responded. Like a magnificent vortex of ego, everything eventually gets sucked back to Balls.
This makes Cameron's job easier; the brutal horsetrading with Miliband over who is ultimately to blame for the banking crash is now so well-established Cameron can pass the time of day like this without even coming close to breaking a sweat. He succeeded in dodging a question by accidentally calling the opposition 'you' – thus prompting Speaker John Bercow to interrupt (he is obsessed with observing the procedural nicety that MPs are supposed to address their remarks to him). When Cameron realised Bercow was going to let him off continuing what had proved an awkward answer, he gave Osborne and Hague a little amused look. Those eyes were twinkling again. In the past in this chamber they have looked hunted, or weary, sometimes even angry. Not today.
Even the Tory backbenchers were being unusually pliant. There were a couple of awkward questions about HS2, it's true, but these were veiled and presented in such diplomatic language there was very little sense of a confrontation. Instead we had arch eurosceptic Bill Cash asking about his gender inequality bill, a turn of events which Cameron confessed himself surprised about.
We also had Edward Leigh – or, after the weekend's honours, Sir Edward Leigh.
"May I say to the prime minister occasionally one should be grateful," he beamed, as delighted as he is red-faced, prompting laughter. "So may I warmly commend him for being the first Conservative prime minister ever to commit to a referendum on Europe." Leigh informed MPs that the man who had just given him a knighthood was also right on welfare dependency, and reducing immigration, and even academies. It was a "richly-deserved knighthood", Cameron declared in response. For today, at least, it also served to shut up a politician who has long been a thorn in the PM's side.
It took Dennis Skinner, right at the end of the session, to present a slightly trickier challenge. Skinner, an MP who has mastered the art of permanent rage-induced incandescence, rose to allege in obscure terms whether Cameron might have misbehaved over his mortgage payments. "I think what the honourable gentleman needs to do is concentrate on the massive problems on his frontbench," the prime minister replied. The Labour backbenchers shouted their disdain, but that was that; another 30-minute examination passed with flying colours.
Cameron sat down. He looked at Hague and Osborne once more, smiling. The eye-twinkling recommenced. Mission not just accomplished, but accomplished with a sense of gentle amusement. Cameron has it easy – and he knows it.