Prime Minister Urgent Question, 30 April 2012
Mr Nicholas Soames, the Conservative member for a rich and oozing slice of Sussex, used to cheer-lead for the Prince of Wales in his publicity battles with the Queen of Hearts, so he knows a thing or two about backing an unpopular cause. Ever the controversialist, Mr Soames inflated to the support of the Prime Minister as he answered an urgent question on the conduct of Mr Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary. "All reasonable people", Mr Soames declared, "will support the Prime Minister's approach". Occupying an expanse of the green benches that could otherwise accommodate a platoon of reasonable people, Mr Soames brooked no dissent. Yet on the Labour side they jeered and shrieked. Quite a lot of unreasonable people it seemed had turned out to watch the Prime Minister become the first holder of his office to be "dragged to the House" (this is the stock description used on these occasions) to answer one of these urgent questions.
Mr Cameron, who had otherwise been looking forward to an afternoon spent pleasantly in Milton Keynes, endured this embarrassment because Ed Miliband had had the wit to try his luck and the Speaker, obviously, wasn't going to pass up an opportunity like that. Several times during the statement, Mr Bercow rose magnificently above the sound of his own voice to demand that the Prime Minister should be heard. The Speaker looked like a man for whom hearing the Prime Minister - or more specifically hearing the Prime Minister flail and flounce - was the most fun he had had since his missus got kicked out of Big Brother.
As to Mr Miliband's wit, it did not extend to taking the advice of the Guardian that had helpfully prepared for him earlier in the day a list of difficult questions to ask. Mr Miliband didn't ask any difficult questions; indeed it is hard to remember him asking any questions at all. Rather he contented himself with asserting that the Culture Secretary was a bounder and a rogue and that the Prime Minister should establish the quickest possible investigative route towards confirming this truth as universally-held. Making copious reference to the Ministerial Code of Conduct, from whose tidy paths Mr Hunt is alleged to have stepped, Mr Miliband reeled off the paragraph and section number references that supported his case. At times he sounded more like a man ordering Chinese takeway than giving the Prime Minister a kebabbing.
Nor were Labour's backbenchers any more forensic. On Wednesday last, when Mr Hunt himself had made a statement to the House, several of them exposed the essential vulnerability of his case by asking awkward questions about who authorised his political adviser to be the point of contact with NewsCorp over the BSkyB bid, and why. The Prime Minister was spared the burden of addressing such thorny matters today. Only Tom Watson - whose line from last week about a single rogue adviser was shamelessly plagiarised by his party leader today - pricked a wound with a dark reference to contacts between special advisers at the Treasury and Murdoch's people. The Prime Minister's discomfort at this line of questioning was picked up in a chorus of "Oh Ohs" from the Labour side, rather reminiscent of how the trucks used to behave in the Thomas the Tank Engine books. None, however, followed up.
The Tory side meanwhile was sound in its defence of the indefensible, much as it had been for Jeremy Hunt last week. There was even an outing for Mrs Bone, whose appearances when the Prime Minister is being cross-examined we have come to dread. Mrs Bone, wife of the unpredictable member for Wellingborough, feels that there are more important things in life to worry about than Mr Hunt. The Prime Minister was bound to agree. When politicians aver that the public are much more interested in X, Y or Z than in whatever matter they happen to be being questioned about at the time, we know that they have arrived at the Totteridge and Whetsone of the Northern Line of lousy get-outs. High Barnet, the final stop on this particular route, is achieved when they tell you that it is time to move on.
So engrossed were the Tories in this stuff, that they missed the one thing of interest that the Prime Minister did say. Embarking upon a complex point about how, if he really had concocted a "grand bargain" with Mr Murdoch, then he would hardly have put Vince Cable in the way of it, Mr Cameron felt the need for a rhetorical question. Mr Cable, it will be remembered, was, by virtue of his office, briefly in charge of deciding whether NewsCorp should be allowed to take-over BSkyB before a couple of Mata Haris from the Daily Telegraph tricked him into revealing his jihadist feelings towards Rupert Murdoch. "What on earth was I doing making the Rt Hon Member for Twickenham the Business Secretary", declaimed the Prime Minister. It will be felt strongly on the Tory right that better men than Mr Cameron have long asked themselves the same question, and never come close to an adequate reply.
Follow Richard Marsh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HampsteadOwl