Today’s Prime Minister’s Questions saw a distinct derailment. Labour have been on the front foot the last week or so, particularly following their surprisingly strong showing in the Glenrothes by-election, by keeping the focus on the economy, where their Tory opponents are having trouble. This morning, Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, made a statement which should have ensured the story remained the same. David Cameron, however, had other ideas, choosing to ask his first question about Baby P, the latest example of the lamentable disaster in what is a litany of failure on the part of children’s services in this country. Gordon Brown’s answers don’t just make Cameron angry – they show a PM ready for an intellectual battle having a hapless go at an emotional exchange.
Brown’s first answer was compendious and thorough; but pushed by Cameron to think about the failing of the local authority in question, Brown followed the lead of his jeering backbenchers, expecting heavy economic questions and therefore dismissing Cameron’s emotion as ephemeral, treating the Baby P issue as a question at best of process. Accusing Cameron of party politics gave the Tory leader the golden opportunity to make a story other than the economic, and at the same time felt to the layman to be the flat-footed response of a woeful wonk.
In a famous moment in the 1988 US presidential campaign, the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, responded to a debate question about his reaction in the event of his wife being raped and murdered with a bald policy statement about his considered position on the death penalty (he opposed it). The question was asked as a result of the Willie Horton controversy, a classic tabloid tale of a parole prisoner reoffending whilst on furlough. Dukakis’s tonedeafness to what gets people going sealed his fate. (“I blew it,” he admitted afterwards to Germond and Witcover.)
Political pundits like Nick Robinson will analyse the political stratagems of this face off. Voters like those in his comments will see only a question they want answered being derided and ignored, a picture not helped by Labour’s overly swift decision that, actually yes, a review would be a jolly good idea.
Cameron didn’t set out to make this into a six-question story; but Brown let him, and then afterwards ceded the ground anyway. And so the story has shifted for a while. Oops.