The floodlights beat down on the pitch as the Government’s opening batsman, David Gauke, defended his wicket against an assault from the Opposition benches. His bat took a few dints – not least from Yvette Cooper, whose fast ball demanded to know where the money would come from to replace the cancelled cuts to PIP – but he seemed to enjoy himself despite the tricky situation. As he knocked away another question, he grinned while noting that “the quality of questions appears to be deteriorating.”
Gauke was bolstered up by the cheers of the Government’s supporters, who had filled the stands. What questions there were from the Tory benches were aimed at offering him some chances to speak positively about the Budget – notably David Burrowes, a leading rebel against the disability benefit cuts, rose to pitch a slow ball inviting the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to confirm that the Chancellor would be offering new aid to the homeless.
Despite Gauke’s effective defence, the Prime Minister could have been forgiven for rolling his shoulders and limbering up for what was sure to be a difficult innings. Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation had created an opportunity for Labour, and his emotional interview with Andrew Marr had provided a series of juicy quotes which the Leader of the Opposition would certainly fling squarely at him.
Cameron chose to face the issue head on, following his presentation of the EU’s Turkey deal with warm praise for his former colleague. There was no sign of the personal irritation which he allowed to leak through when discussing Boris Johnson a few weeks ago. Instead, he was generous:
‘…my Rt Hon Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green spent almost a decade campaigning for welfare reform and spent the last six years implementing these policies in government.
In that time we have seen nearly half a million fewer children living in workless households over 1 million fewer people on out of work benefits and nearly 2.4 million more people in work.
And in spite of having to take difficult decisions on the deficit child poverty, inequality and pensioner poverty are all down.
My Rt Hon Friend contributed an enormous amount to the work of this government and he can be proud of what he achieved.’
Having limbered up and settled into a defensive posture, he prepared to face the first ball from the Opposition leader. Up Corbyn ran, his arm swung – it wasn’t right that the Prime Minister had only given him half of his statement. Some chuckled. He retreated and dashed forward again – Britain ought to join its European allies in taking a share of the migrants crossing the sea to arrive in Greece. The chuckling stopped. Corbyn raised his voice, if not his aim – why would the Prime Minister defend an unfair Budget? Once more Islington’s finest slung a ball at the Prime Minister – why isn’t the Chancellor here? Is he up to the job? Aha, we spectators thought, now he’ll move on to Duncan Smith’s criticisms.
And then he sat down.
Yes, the leader of the Opposition hadn’t just dropped the ball, he’d failed to even pick it up in the first place. After a weekend of dire troubles for the Government, Corbyn hadn’t even mentioned the ex-Welfare Secretary whose resignation had caused it. It would have been in order to do so; the Prime Minister had opened the door by discussing it in his statement. Perhaps the Labour leader had assumed it wouldn’t come up, as he hinted in his complaint about receiving only half of Cameron’s statement – but surely he could have assumed that it would? Even if Cameron hadn’t raised the topic, there were a thousand and one ways that Corbyn could have crowbarred it into his response.
But no – and the Government benches couldn’t believe their luck. Labour MPs looked more than a little displeased at the omission; understandably, given the opportunity that had just been thrown away.
Just as Cooper had to stand in to do the job of the Shadow Chancellor in questioning Gauke, another defeated leadership hopeful stepped up to raise the IDS issue. Liz Kendall asked how the Prime Minister felt when his former colleague said that he didn’t lead a compassionate government after all. Cameron almost looked relieved to get the chance to give the answer he presumably expected to provide to Corbyn. “I’m sad that he has left the Government but I can guarantee the work of being a compassionate Conservative government will continue.”
“Hear, hear,” his MPs cried. Their questions to the Prime Minister largely mirrored that sentiment. There was a smattering of critical queries about the prospect of Turkish accession to the EU, and the legality of the deal that Brussels has now struck, but none were delivered with the venom that some of the press would have preferred to see. Nor was there any sign of any further fight from friends of IDS, seeking to press the sore question of the Chancellor’s management of the Budget process.
In fact, just as the weakness of the Opposition arguably led to Tory MPs feeling more free to disagree in public, the prospect of a possible opportunity for Corbyn had led them to rally round. Aside from predictable enthusiasm from Ken Clarke there was little indication that the Turkey deal was popular on the Government benches, and no doubt we will hear more about it in coming weeks, and plenty still harbour serious doubts about the judgement of the vanished Chancellor, but what frustrations there might be on either front were set aside in the cause of seeing off Labour. That Corbyn failed to even raise the key issue was the icing on their cake.