David Cameron was inundated. The Tory Whips had flooded the front bench with women. All the women looked miserable, but at least they demonstrated that the party is quite rich in women. Ed Miliband could not point, as he pointed last week, to an uninterrupted line of men in suits.
It is possible that the women looked unhappy because they were thinking of the unfortunate people in various parts of the country whose houses have been flooded. This was a sombre PMQs, with no proper outbreaks of hooliganism. One of Parliament’s strengths is that it can adapt its tone to the needs of the moment.
The need today was to show concern for the victims of the floods. Cameron is good at looking concerned. He repeated his line that “money is no object in this relief effort”, and referred quite often to the destruction by the sea of “the Dawlish link” in the Great Western Railway.
Miliband asked about 550 people employed by the Environment Agency to deal with flooding who are apparently being made redundant. Cameron avoided this question: his usual practice when any answer would be unsatisfactory. If he said this was a matter for the agency (which presumably it is), he would sound less in control.
But these calculated silences are themselves somewhat unsatisfactory, for they suggest a certain evasiveness. However well Cameron fills the silence by talking about something else, such as the agency’s budget, he sounds a bit cagey. Miliband did not, of course, venture a further question, about whether the Environment Agency is under proper ministerial control, or is a law unto itself, for although it was set up in 1996, by the last Conservative government, it operated during the 13 years of Labour government too. Politicians seldom care to imply during a crisis that they are not in fact in charge.
This session will have gratified those who look for a more sombre tone at PMQs, but was hard going for fans of Punch and Judy politics. Only at the end did Cameron take a mild swipe at Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, whom he accused of being “back in the gesticulation game” and unable to guarantee that Labour would match “any of the spending plans we’ve announced”.
The frequent references to Dawlish put me in mind of Stanley Johnson’s campaign as the Tory candidate for that part of Devon at the 2005 general election. His son, Boris Johnson, came down to speak for him in Dawlish. Stanley saw at once the comic opportunity: “‘How many other languages can he speak?’ a Polish friend of mine asked.”
If Stanley had been elected, he might have asked a question today. But as it was, PMQs contained no Johnsonian touches.