PMQs: Nick tackles Gordon on impending Winter of Discontent

by Stephen Tall on July 16, 2008

Nick Clegg used his two questions to the Prime Minister today to challenge Gordon Brown on what used to be his strong suit: the economy. What Nick has done repeatedly at PMQs , and to increasingly good effect, is to link Big Issues back to everyday concerns, today focusing on energy and food prices, and starting with a punchy line straight from the Book of Vince:

The Prime Minister promised to abolish boom and bust, but now we have got both: inflation is booming, the economy is bust.

I’m not alone in being impressed by Nick: The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson, not always the greatest friend to the Lib Dems, scored today’s PMQs as a victory for Nick. Fraser also acutely picks out a flaw in the Prime Minister’s lazy responses:

Brown was, as always, caught between his two responses on the economy. Response A is “it’s bad out there, your Great Helmsman will guide you through the storms.” And then there’s Response B, “I’m a great Prime Minister, things are really good here, record employment, lower inflation than anywhere in the world.” Unwisely, he chose Response B … Brown is tiptoeing closer and closer to Callaghan “crisis? What crisis?” territory.

As for David Cameron, it was as ever a fluent, often witty routine, aided by one of the poorest, most incoherent performances I’ve seen by a politician at the despatch box – that Gordon Brown is Prime Minister would astonish an impartial observer watching his ducking, clunking, stuttering replies today.

And yet Mr Cameron does insist on ruining it. A couple of weeks ago I expressed the (clearly naive) hope that the Tory leader was learning to “[moderate] his performance, attempting to tone down the shrill posturing and cheap jibes which have all too often marred his superior debating skills”. Not today. Twice he referred casually and pettily to the Prime Minister as “useless”. Whether you agree or not, I expect more serious behaviour from the man who wants to present himself as the next elected Prime Minister. Mr Cameron is doing himself no long-term good with such easy union-hack retorts.

Anyway, you can judge for yourselves below, via YouTube and Hansard:

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): The Prime Minister promised to abolish boom and bust, but now we have got both: inflation is booming, the economy is bust. Energy prices are rocketing, house prices are collapsing, thousands of jobs are on the line, and food prices just go up and up every week. When will the Prime Minister accept that a winter of discontent is just around the corner?

The Prime Minister: I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has seen the employment figures today, but employment in this country is at its highest level ever. There are 61,000 more jobs in the economy during the last three months, and while, yes, there are problems, we have inflation that is lower than the rest of Europe and lower than America, we are taking action to take people through these difficult circumstances, which the previous Conservative Government never did when there were problems, and at the same time we are creating more jobs in this economy and we have the flexibility to enable us to withstand events. I would have thought that he would see the economy in its proper context.

Mr. Clegg: The Prime Minister is so out of touch he does not understand the scale of the problem: 5.5 million British families are in fuel poverty and all he can squeeze out of the energy companies is 26p per week for each of those families; 1.7 million people on low incomes are still waiting for a decent home, and his only feeble response is to buy up fewer than 1,500 empty properties. He is tinkering at the edges, obsessed with details. Will he take a summer break, take a step back, see the big picture and come up with real answers to prevent a winter of misery for millions of British families?

The Prime Minister: The big picture is taking action to help hard-pressed families. When the right hon. Gentleman talks about fuel poverty, he omits to mention the winter allowance paid to 11 million pensioners in this country and costing over £2 billion. When he talks about the utility companies, he is omitting to tell us that there is £100 million to help low-income families, and he fails to mention that 22 million families will receive £120 in a tax cut over the next few months. All these things are necessary to help people through difficult times, but I think that people would prefer our solutions to the problem than his.