By Andrew Gimson
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After detecting incontrovertible signs that the British economy is recovering, Ed Miliband took refuge in Syria, to which he devoted his entire quota of questions. Syria, alas, shows no signs of recovery, and the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition soon found themselves locked in an ignoble contest to see who could express the most sincere revulsion at what is going on there.
Both were trumped by the Father of the House, Sir Peter Tapsell (Con, Louth and Horncastle). There was flippant “shushing” as he rose to his feet, but he was heard in complete silence as he voiced what he called “the Armageddon question”: if the Americans “illegally” bomb the Syrians, and the Syrians bring in the Russians to bomb the rebels, what will Nato do?
Cameron with characteristic agility turned the question on its head: if no action is taken against President Assad, and he uses chemical weapons again, “what sort of Armageddon are the Syrian people going to be facing?”
The Prime Minister had earlier announced that he wants to see a “plurelastic” future for Syria. But no soon had we imagined this to be a more flexible and therefore attainable goal for that benighted land than he corrected himself and said “pluralistic”.
Pluralism is a fine thing, but one could not help feeling it is as unlikely to be attained as the democratic ideals with which Tony Blair used to try to kindle our enthusiasm for middle-eastern adventures.
Mr Cameron was not going to allow Mr Miliband to deprive him of the pleasure of alluding to the higher growth forecasts and other pieces of good economic news which have arrived in recent days. A series of obliging Tory backbenchers rose to ask him non-questions about the economy which enabled the Prime Minister to be rude about Labour.
Rudeness has its place in politics, but how one wished that the Prime Minister would show a touch of Churchillian magnanimity towards Mr Miliband: would perhaps invite us to sympathise with the Leader of the Opposition instead of just beating him to a pulp.
At least Mr Miliband did not feel obliged, on this occasion, to try to be rude back. He too might benefit, when next he engages in direct combat with the Prime Minister, from a lighter touch. Mr Miliband may even like to consider whether the time has come to deploy comical weapons. For there is something rather relentless and ungenerous about Mr Cameron’s onslaught.
One of the best questions of the day was put by Margaret Beckett (Lab, Derby South), who wondered: “Why does the Prime Minister believe that his plans to restrict lobbying are opposed by organisations from the Salvation Army, Countryside Alliance, Oxfam, the British Legion and so on, right through to ConservativeHome?”
Mrs Beckett was once deputy leader of the Labour Party, and also for a brief period after John Smith’s death its leader. Perhaps the time has come to bring her back for a second stint as leader, whereupon she could tax Mr Cameron with any criticisms this site may have felt obliged to voice during the preceding week.
But we are sorry to say that Mr Cameron showed no respect either for Mrs Beckett, or for the Salvation Army, Countryside Alliance, Oxfam, the British Legion and ConservativeHome. He instead accused Mrs Beckett of being part of “a concerted lobbying campaign being run by the trade unions”.
The Prime Minister is addicted to this union-bashing stuff, but one couldn’t help feeling it didn’t amount to much of an answer.