Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

PMQs: What's this? Elements of an actual debate...

Following PMQs on twitter is always interesting. You get a myriad of coverage at a relentless pace with a broad range of opinions. But today, there was something like a consensus. No-one seemed willing to make a point for Cameron. It was Ed’s day. At long, long last, that is. However, having watched the exchanges, a few things can be said.
Firstly, it must be said that this was much more impressive from Ed Miliband than has yet been seen since last September. He suddenly realised that he was not the gagman or the charisma machine who can dismiss an argument with a wink and a smile. In short, he realised that he could never be Flashman and resorted to who he actually is: the geek. For the most part, he was calm and considered and attempted to argue his point and tried to take advantage of the fact that the leader of the opposition gets to ask the first question and set the ground of the debate. If he can carry this kind of performance on, we may have a contest on our hands.
Secondly, the government is in trouble over the BSkyb-News International deal. They never really had the opportunity (that is, if they had the will) to delay the deal until a quieter time. In fact, this story couldn’t have broken at a worse time, and Miliband is right to suggest that the government move responsibility on to the competition commission, as he has been saying for a while. He can consistently hold that the deal is distinguishable from the current revelations, and say that the deal is affected by them: in terms of the public perception, he is right. That doesn’t affect the value of the deal, but the timing tarnishes it for a while.
Thirdly, is the issue of Andy Coulson. Before PMQs, everyone knew that Miliband would go for this. He was wrong to do so. Andy Coulson may have done a lot of wrong whilst at NI, but his role in government was (we certainly hope) utterly separate from that. The man is clearly very intelligent and capable, and the roles of a red-top editor and a No. 10 director of communications are very different. Coulson was an unwise choice politically, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have done a good job for Cameron.
The problem with Miliband’s line of questioning is that it isn’t about Coulson. It’s about Cameron. There is no way that any of this hideous and despicable scandal can be pinned on the PM even via a former employee. Cameron, the government, and this case are all absolutely distinct. Questions about Coulson’s appointment are utterly irrelevant, and a Labour leader should be careful about accusing a Director of Communications of lacking a moral code, given their party’s recent track record in those appointments. Pots and kettles come to mind.
Finally, a word should be said about Cameron’s performance. As he left the chamber, he may have been surprised by the quality of his sparring partner. He underestimated Miliband (and who can blame him for that?). However, for a brief moment, both men achieved a level of constructive debate at PMQs, the like of which has not been seen for a while. Two years ago, on YouTube, I found a video of Cameron and Blair from about 2006. The two were actually debating in a manner which was unrecognisable from the Cameron-Brown sessions of the day. It was bordering on excellent, and the reminder of it gave me hope for parliamentary discourse. A good contest and rigorous, constructive debate are essential for a healthy democracy, and one thing from today is absolutely certain: Cameron hasn’t had an exchange which was anything like that since Blair left office.

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