How loyal the Conservatives were at PMQs. They asked David Cameron helpful questions about today’s fall in the employment figures, compulsory English lessons, the return of secondary picketing, and Trident submarines putting to sea without nuclear weapons: both these last proposed by Jeremy Corbyn.
Nigel Dodds (DUP, North Belfast) asked a very helpful question about “unconditional support for the people of the Falkland Islands”. Cameron replied that “the honourable gentleman has put it better than I ever could”: a conspicuous piece of flattery, but also a public acknowledgment that he values the DUP’s support. Here too, the idea of giving only conditional support to the islanders had been raised on Sunday by Corbyn.
Why were the Conservative eurosceptics so silent? Why did we not hear from these defenders of parliamentary sovereignty? For it is surely in Parliament that they should be seizing every opportunity to make the argument. Enoch Powell would not have been so reticent.
Only John Baron (Con, Basildon and Billericay) ventured to strike a dissenting note. He complained that he has yet to receive a response from Cameron to his request made in November for a meeting to discuss the EU renegotiation.
Cameron replied that Baron has “slightly made up his mind already” on the EU, and “I don’t want to take any more of his time than necessary”. It was extremely rude of the Prime Minister to pretend that Baron might be too busy to see him, when the reverse is the case.
But here too was a sign of prime ministerial confidence, or at least of prime ministerial sang froid. He reckons Baron to be such a marginal figure that other Tory backbenchers will smile rather than bristle at the put-down.
There is at present no proper parliamentary opposition to Cameron. Neither his own party nor the Opposition shows the slightest ability to hold him to account. The Labour leader sounds more and more like geography teacher with out-of-date opinions, his mindset regarded with ill-concealed embarrassment by most of his colleagues in the staff room.
Corbyn complained that nurses will have to take out student loans in order to get trained. Cameron pointed out that two out of three people who want to train as nurses are turned away, with the result that we have to import vast numbers of nurses from other parts of the world.
The Prime Minister accused the Leader of the Opposition of being “so short-sighted and so anti-aspiration”, and said the Tories are the party that wants “to uncap university places”. Corbyn not only had no reply to this: he gave no sign of understanding that a reply is needed. He appears to have stopped thinking in 1983.
Such prime ministerial dominance amounts to a subversion of our parliamentary system, which used to draw so much of its vitality from the possibility that there could be a general election at any time: a check on power which was removed by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011. Helpful questions from Tories, and futile ones from Corbyn, leave Cameron the monarch of all he surveys.