PMQs: Nick tackles Gordon on the new strategy for Afghanistan

by Stephen Tall on December 2, 2009

There’s no doubt today’s PMQs belonged to Gordon Brown. It’s not necessarily that he answered the questions any better than usual – that seems to be an acknowledged superfluity for the Prime Minister – but his performance was miles more energetic and confident than usual.

Mr Brown was also helped by an over-defensive David Cameron, who seemed to have no quips prepared for the inevitable assaults by the Prime Minister on the Tories’ tax cuts for millionaires, and the tax-avoiding non-dom status of Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith. Especially effective were the Prime Minister’s withering put-downs – “The more he talks, the less he actually says,” and “with him and Mr. Goldsmith, their inheritance tax policy seems to have been dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton” – from which the Tory leader was unable to recover.

These tribal skirmishes excited the Labour benches in particular, with the noise level higher even than usual. As a result, Nick Clegg’s thoughtful question on the Government’s Afghanistan strategy after President Obama’s announcement of a surge followed by troop withdrawal was heard, not in the usual hush the Commons reserves for foreign policy issues where British troops’ lives are at stake, but with barracking and heckling from the Labour benches:

President Obama’s speech last night on his new strategy in Afghanistan is immensely important. He has set a very tight timetable indeed for this new military strategy and surge to have an effect. Given that tight timetable, does the Prime Minister agree that it is all the more important not to over-rely on President Karzai? President Obama said last night that the best way forward is to get tough on Karzai but, given Karzai’s previous record and that two of his vice-presidents are ex-warlords, does the Prime Minister not think that it would be better to have a strategy of working around President Karzai and relying on local and regional political leadership instead?

A Weetabix-fuelled Mr Brown couldn’t resist the cheap retort:

President Obama will be grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s endorsement.

This provoked much hilarity again on the Labour side – though its impact was lessened by the Prime Minister recycling the crack against Tory Sir Peter Tapsell a few minutes later – before Mr Brown attempted a serious response:

He is absolutely right that we have both to weaken the Taliban and strengthen the Afghan state. The actions that we are taking with troops to deal with the insurgency are important but, as he rightly recognises, so too is building up the strength of the Afghan army and police, and its local government and national Government. As President Obama said last night, there is no blank cheque for President Karzai, who has to take the action that is necessary. That is why I said earlier today that the London conference on 28 January, which President Karzai will attend, will be a chance for him to set out the further reforms that he has to make to make the army and police more efficient, to make sure that the Government are free of corruption and to build up stronger local and provincial government.

To his credit, Nick appears entirely unfazed by the hostile, verbal jostling of Labour and Tory MPs, his second question again probing whether the Government yet has a rounded strategy for resolving the Afghanistan turmoil:

Will the Prime Minister confirm whether the powers around Afghanistan—Russia, China and, yes, even Iran—might be involved in the London conference to which he just referred? Without regional backing, it will be very difficult to create stability within Afghanistan. President Obama was silent on this crucial regional dimension in his speech last night. Will the Prime Minister tell us whether that is being taken forward, and perhaps give us a feel for what steps are being taken to involve those other countries in the region?

For once, Mr Brown treated Nick to a reply which actually answered the question, confirming regional powers would indeed be invited:

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman because, as he recognises, the military surge must be matched by a political and a diplomatic surge. It will be no use for the future of Afghanistan if there is no security around Afghanistan with its neighbours. That is why they have a very important role to play in the future—in guaranteeing non-interference in Afghans’ affairs, in building up the links that are necessary for Afghan trade, industry and commerce to flourish, and also in stopping the flow of weapons into Afghanistan. So yes, it is right for us to invite regional powers to the London conference.

For once, PMQs actually worked as it should do.

My ratings for this PMQs:
Nick Clegg 7, Gordon Brown 8, David Cameron 4.

Worth recording, too, this exchange between Mr Brown and the Lib Dem MP Malcolm Bruce on the connection between the recent floods and action needed to address climate change:

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): When the Prime Minister goes to Copenhagen next week, will he not recognise that securing a commitment to the £100 billion fund that he is looking for in 2020 will be essential to securing a deal from the developing countries? But at the same time, will he reflect that, given the floods that we have in this country—in Cumbria, in Huntly in my constituency and elsewhere—we need a partnership between the Government and the insurance industry to ensure that we have the means to cope with climate change? Local authorities in the present climate will not be able to do it alone.

The Prime Minister:
The right hon. Gentleman is Chairman of the International Development Committee and I am grateful for what he says about the climate change conference and the need to help the poorest countries. Our policy is to deal with climate change at home and abroad. There should be no doubt about the scientific evidence before us that shows the need to act on climate change. I thought we had moved beyond that argument to looking at what we need to do. At home we will continue to invest in a low-carbon economy, and I believe that in the pre-Budget report next week, the right hon. Gentleman will see action to move forward that investment so that we are a low-carbon economy of the future, one that can lead the world. Abroad, it is important that we make sure that there is sufficient finance for developing countries to enable them to come to a deal in Copenhagen in a few days’ time. We already have agreement on start-up finance. We now need to get an agreement on how we can move forward that finance over a period of years.