An inundation of women helps David Cameron keep at bay any accusations of sexism still sloshing around
They’ve tried Punch and Judy, they’ve tried softly-softly; and on Wednesday the parties settled on a new means for settling the balls-out battle for PMQs. A woman-off! David Cameron had been taunted at last week’s question time over his all-male front bench, and he knew just the way to avoid that happening again. Women, an inundation of them, all over the government benches. They were everywhere – seven on the front bench, and four in the row behind, and three in the row behind that, lined up like neat little sandbags on either side of the PM, to keep at bay any accusations of sexism still sloshing around. If you could see only TV pictures, you could almost imagine that there weren’t unbroken rows of white men behind, and our government is inclusive.
Unfortunately, rule one of a woman-off is: have more women than the other lot. Labour’s frontbench had eight. That meant an early win for the opposition, but at least everyone could agree that it was a great day for feminism and nobody felt remotely demeaned by being instructed where to sit and look female.
That important business dealt with, MPs turned to the floods, in preparation for which Ed Miliband had been working up another cunning strategy for prime minister’s questions: ask proper questions (he asks questions quite often, of course, but it can be hard to resist the “Why are you lot so incompetent BULLINGDON CLUB BULLINGDON CLUB?” formulation).
We are, however, in a time of national emergency, an occasion requiring one of Miliband’s trademarked hushed tones, and a question that was specific and, apparently, not overly loaded. Cameron had promised on Tuesday that money was “no object” in responding to the floods. What, specifically, would that cover?
The PM could do specific: “The military, sandbags, the emergency services, restoring broken flood defences – all of those things.”
Great! said Miliband. Now what, specifically, is going to happen to the 550 flooding experts the Environment Agency is planning to sack? This was possibly the first Cameron had heard of it. But where it would have been perfectly possible to answer a detailed question with a non-committal pledge – that a future review of flooding resilience, say, could also look at EA resources – Cameron instead reached for his flannel. Capital spending pledges to 2020, zero-based budget reviews, flood defence spending in 2015, 2016, 2017 …
The residents of Somerset could have told him a flannel is not much use in a flood. “I am only sorry that the right hon gentleman seeks to divide the house when we should be coming together for the nation!” squeaked the PM. Well quite, this was certainly not the time for political point-scoring.
And in that spirit of consensual togetherness, he turned on the seated Ed Balls “who is back in the gesticulation game” and demanded he say whether he would match the government’s spending promises. “Silence!” bellowed …read more