The PM survives the backbenchers

By Ian Dunt

David Cameron survived two and half hours of scrutiny from the most powerful backbenchers in Westminster this afternoon.

It was the prime minister’s first contact with the liaison committee, which is composed of the chairmen of the various Commons committees.

The 33 MPs asked him questions on a seemingly limitless variety of topics, including forestry, Anglo-US relations, housing benefits and the Ireland economic situation.

Cameron committee grilling as-it-happened

The stormiest section of the session occurred when Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who faced the most significant challenge from the BNP in her Barking constituency, told the prime minister his housing benefit reforms would end mixed communities, put increased pressure on housing in deprived areas and encourage extremist politics.

Sketch: Cameron survives his first endurance test

Mr Cameron reacted furiously to the suggestion, banging his hands on the table as he told Ms Hodge: “I don’t think you understand.”

At that point the chair of the committee demanded order and insisted that the questioning move onto another topic.

There was another uncomfortable moment when Mr Cameron was asked about the leaked letter from defence secretary Liam Fox, insisting that severe cuts to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) budget would threaten Britain’s ability to defend itself.

Mr Cameron admitted “interfering” at the end of the defence review process in the negotiations going on between the treasury and the MoD.

“It was tough,” Mr Cameron admitted.

The prime minister said it was normal for Cabinet secretaries to lobby for their department, and joked that their arguments were sometimes found orally, in a letter, or occasionally on the front pages of a national newspaper.

“Of course it adds to the pressure, but I don’t think it materially changed” the debate, Mr Cameron went on.

He went on to swat away the suggestion that the letter “was written to be leaked”, but he did admit that it was a problem having a leak in the MoD, which is, after all, the department responsible for security.

Asked repeatedly about the Irish situation, Mr Cameron refused to rule out a bail out but he said it was inappropriate to discuss the fate of another country.
The session came to an end with Mr Cameron telling the MPs he supported having a national bank holiday next year to celebrate the royal wedding.

Tony Blair used to navigate his liaison committee appearances with ease, charming his interrogators while brandishing an impressive level of policy knowledge across a variety of briefs.

Gordon Brown also showed decent policy knowledge, but his sessions were often typified by evasion and boredom, as the prime minister reeled off long lists of figures and strategies.

The session was created by Mr Blair as a means of putting the holder of the post of prime minister under greater scrutiny than he or she received under PMQs.

Previous Downing Street residents had refused to appear before select committees because they said PMQs was the proper channel through which to scrutinise their decisions, but New Labour felt the cross-party committee, which would involve a concentration on policy rather than party-political ribbing, could be a more temperate and subdued vehicle.

Many critics insist that little is revealed at the meetings, however, and that the wide range of questions, the ego of MPs and an array of deflecting tactics from the prime minister mean few new details emerge during the sessions.