Since he has proved himself incapable of cleansing the Tories of their unfair reputation as the “nasty party”, what exactly is the point of David Cameron?
The media is abuzz today with talk of David Cameron’s withering put-down of Jeremy Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions.
The Spectator breathlessly reports that “Cameron delivers a knockout blow to a struggling Corbyn“:
This could have been a tricky PMQs for David Cameron. Instead, it will be remembered for Cameron ventriloquising his mother and telling Corbyn ‘put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem’.
What gave this jibe its potency, is that it sums up what a lot of voters think of the Labour leader. It was not quite as Flashmanesque as it sounds. For it came in response to a Labour front bench heckle asking what Cameron’s mother would say about cuts in Oxfordshire.
Even before Cameron floored Corbyn with that line, the Labour leader was struggling. He chose to go on the NHS and the junior doctors’ strike. But even on this subject, he couldn’t make any headway. Worryingly for Labour. Corbyn’s PMQs performances are—if anything—getting worse. You can tell that Cameron is now just cruising through the Labour leader’s questions.
Responding to a heckle from the Labour benches about his mother, Mary Cameron (who signed a petition opposing local public service cuts), the prime minister let loose with all of the pent-up frustration he feels at Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to play the traditional role of Generic PMQs Sparring Partner.
Here’s Cameron’s quote in full:
“I’ll ask my mother. Oh I think I know what my mother would say, I think she’d look across the dispatch box and she’d say put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem.”
If this is what “winning” Prime Minister’s Questions now looks like, then both the tone and content of our political debate – even by the low standards set by Parliament – is in far worse a state than even I have been lamenting.
And Tim Montgomerie’s decision to leave the Conservative Party is vindicated, as David Cameron’s latest flash of temper reminds us that under his leadership, the Tories are not interested in enacting radical conservative reform in the model of Thatcher, but rather seek to wield power just for the sake of it, while ridiculing everybody else from their lofty perch. Why else refuse the opportunity to respond directly to criticism and defend his record in favour of delivering smarmy, schoolboy jaunts directed at the Leader of the Opposition?
People who defend David Cameron’s rootless, opportunistic leadership of the Conservative Party love to claim that by steering such a centrist, New Labour-friendly course, the prime minister is in some way helping to “de-toxify” the Tory brand.
The clear implication of this is that we should shut up and accept the fact that there is almost nothing conservative about this Conservative government, because bland centrism and the failure to advance conservative principles is the price we have to pay whilst conservatism’s reputation is cleansed of the “stain” of Thatcherism. And to be fair, with so little else to recommend Cameron’s government other than the fact it is not Ed Miliband’s government, they have a point. Detoxification is all that the Tories have going for them at the moment.
Except they don’t even have that. We live in a political climate where anti-Tory activists will daub “Tory Scum” on war memorials, spit at innocent people attending the Conservative Party conference and indulge in all manner of overblown rhetoric about the heartless Evil Tories coming to take away your human rights and cast your disabled relatives out onto the streets to die of exposure. If the past few years are supposed to have been an exercise in image rehabilitation for the Tories, they have been the most abject failure and waste of political capital.
Yet David Cameron is supposed to be our Great White Hope, the man who delivers Conservative majority governments at general elections by running away from any policy or principle which might be seen as “nasty” or right wing.
It is all the more surprising, then, that Cameron consistently chooses to be so nasty and unnecessarily aggressive at PMQs – not just putting his points across or counter-attacking forcefully, as PMQs requires, but actively relishing in delivering the most personal put-down or remark possible. Less Tony Blair’s devastating but above-the-belt “weak, weak, weak” jibe at John Major’s expense, and more “you’re too poor to buy nice clothes”.
Seriously, how did David Cameron think that his “proper suit” comment would play once it seeped beyond the Westminster and media echo chamber and into the public consciousness? Sure, it won a big laugh and sustained mockery of Corbyn in the House of Commons chamber, but replayed on television it just looks like a cheap and nasty stunt from a man who would rather resort to personal insults than answer a straightforward question.
People sitting at home – those few who actually pay any attention to the outcome of Prime Minister’s Questions, at any rate – will not have seen a clever and likeable prime minister slapping down an angry, extremist left-winger. They will have seen a haughty, self-important Old Etonian standing at the dispatch box and making cutting personal remarks about the sartorial choices of a slightly befuddled but harmless-looking professor type.
Even when David Cameron “wins” Prime Minister’s Questions (as he did today) he loses, because he is fundamentally incapable of winning his exchanges with the Leader of the Opposition without morphing into the most ridiculous caricature of a snobbish public school boy imaginable in order to do it.
And hey presto, Labour’s work is done for them – smoking gun evidence that the Tories are a party of arrogant toffs, and that if they had their way then politics would only be for impeccably dressed people from establishment families, wearing Savile Row suits and speaking the Queen’s English. And all Jeremy Corbyn had to do in order compound this perception in the public consciousness was wince through David Cameron’s latest smarmy insult.
Remind me: what was David Cameron’s essential winning quality, again?
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