This is getting boring. Biting his nails and looking nervous before today’s PMQs, Gordon Brown must have hardly been looking forward a further public kicking from David Cameron.
And not much has changed since last week. Looking irritated right from the start after a question from Graham Brady on tax relief, Brown positively erupted at Cameron’s suggestion that Government targets had exacerbated the hospital infection crisis in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells. Stammering over his words and clutching a dog-eared newspaper, Brown only seemed to dig himself deeper by quoting the “new Chief Exective of the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust” as his defence - what a shame that no-one has informed the Prime Minister that the Trust has not yet appointed a new CEO.
Brown did his best to hit back by ridiculing Cameron’s likening himself to Governor of California Arnold Schwartzenegger over their respective climate change efforts, but the result was a one-sided contest in the Leader of the Opposition's favour. If it were a boxing match, the fight would have been stopped to save the Prime Minister any further punishment.
Of far greater interest was Vince Cable’s first PMQs as caretaker leader of the Liberal Democrats. Visibly more confidant than his predecessor, Cable dug back into greater “Liberal” territory (surely not an attempt to curry favour ahead of the upcoming leadership election?) by condemning the comments from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Andy Burnham supporting tax breaks for married couples. Hardly surprising from this Prime Minister that he glowingly endorsed the Lib Dem steward’s comments (see the post below for this author’s thoughts on this issue). What else would one expect from a Chancellor whose tax burdens have made it more cost-effective for families to live separately rather than stay together?
Still, a further resounding PMQs defeat must surely be piling further pressure upon Mr Brown for a success, in any form, to crow about. As an election can now safely be discounted, expect Brown’s focus to fall upon the negotiation of the EU Treaty. While Number Ten insiders have all but ruled out a referendum on the Treaty in spite of the enormous similarities – some might say identicalities – between it and the former EU Constitution, Brown simply cannot afford to hand the Conservatives another gift (even one in return for stolen policies) in the form of a weakly-negotiated Treaty. The jeers from Opposition MPs which are currently ringing in his ears will be infinitely louder if he returns from negotiations having handed over (further) crucial powers without securing major opt-outs on issues such as social security, justice and human rights.
Clearly, Brown must arrive in Portugal tomorrow morning prepared to play hardball with other EU leaders if he doesn’t get what he wants, nee needs. But on the evidence of today’s showing, that may be a step too far for Gordon the Timid.