Thursday, December 08, 2005

Minding Your PMQs

Although I would still describe myself as a Cameron sceptic, I thought that his performance at PMQs today - at least in the first exchange - was masterful. Starting off by making the Chief Whip a laughing stock was excellent (and not before time someone made that point!), but the key moment, for me, was that Cameron showed he had learned the key lesson of Blairism.

It was no surprise Labour won the election in 1997. It would have taken a sheer disaster, an appalling leader, and a huge slice of bad luck for the result to have gone any other way. The sheer size of the victory, however, was in no small part down to Blair. The reason for this was that when in opposition, at least, Blair didn't stick to crude oppositionism. He was more than prepared to get up at the dispatch box and give the Tories credit where it was due. That made him all the more credible when he went on the offensive.

Cameron copied that style with aplomb today. I haven't been convinced by his policies, but his questions on education were impressive. Impressive because he agreed in principle with Blair's reforms, and yet drew clear water between his position and Labour's, especially over the issue of schools being given control of their own admissions policies. As I say, I don't like the detail - in short, I think that it is a clumsy way at best of achieving desired outcomes (but more on that some other time) - but the trick for Cameron will be to prove unadversarial on public service reform, yet putting that line in the sand. Today was a good start.

Of course, having set the tone for principled opposition today, Cameron now has to turn his focus on the "opposition" part. It's vital he lands some blows on Labour's reputation for economic competence - Brown has already been forced into a humiliating climbdown, and the detail of the pre-Budget Report (such as removing the 0% rate of corporation tax) is even more damning. One of the reasons for the Tories' continued failure thus far in the Blair era is their failure to land a convincing blow on Brown's economic record despite the fact there are many areas he could have been criticised for. Economists are now suggesting that taxes will have to rise or spending will have to fall. If I were David Cameron, that would be the dilemma I put to Blair in their next meeting.