Imagine David Cameron neither gloating nor sneering at prime minister’s questions. If you’re finding this hard, think how much trickier it would be for Dave.
Gloating and sneering are his default settings in the House of Commons, his own personal triumph of the will after years of inbred privilege and entitlement.
And, in its way, effective enough. PMQs may be no one’s idea of effective parliamentary democracy, but gloating and sneering have been more than enough to see off Ed Miliband, and Dave had every reason to believe it would be equally effective against his interim successor.
“Gloat, gloat, sneer, sneer,” Gloating Dave had sneered in answer to Harriet Harman’s first question. Dave couldn’t quite remember what the question was, but then why bother when you’ve no intention of answering it? As he gloated and sneered, his backbenchers sneered and gloated along with him. They are used to this routine and rather like it. Many of them are quite practised at it themselves.
Harman may have faults of her own – most obviously an enthusiasm disconnect – but gloating and sneering are not her stock in trade. “The right honourable gentleman won the election and he is the prime minister,” she observed. “So he does not need to do ranting and sneering and gloating. He can just answer the question. Frankly, he should show a bit more class.” Dave showed his class by sniggering with George Osborne; the class was the Lower Fifth and he was the naughty know-all who had been ticked off by the form teacher.
Slowly it dawned on him that he and the chancellor were the only ones who were finding this funny. The rest of the Tory benches had the grace to look embarrassed by Harman’s intervention. A look of panic crossed Dave’s face, as he tried to remember how not to gloat and sneer.
“The right honourable lady is most learned and excellent,” he ad-libbed, searching for an authentic voice. “The questions she raises are very important and I will endeavour to answer them in as full a way as possible, though I hope she will bear with me as I’m not at all used to answering questions. So can I just say that I will think very carefully about what she has said and get back to her when I have something to say.”
The chamber now felt a great deal quieter than when it is almost empty. Everyone was non-plussed by the new semi-serious, quasi-mature Dave. Even Harman, who was so surprised not to have been sneered at she could barely remember her next question. Yet again, Dave was the epitome of knightly gentillesse. “Milady is most bountiful and full of grace,” he said. “Yet again she has asked a question of a most perceptive and courtly nature that good mannerliness requireth me to make unto her the most gracious of answers.”
It couldn’t last, of course. Dave couldn’t help himself and within minutes he was back to gloating and sneering. “Gloat, gloat, sneer, sneer,” he gloated and sneered. “He just cannot help but gloat, can he?” Harman pointed out once more. Dave looked mortified and turned once more to George for reassurance. But even Osborne had now turned his back. Dave was alone. “I beg the most humble lady’s forgiveness,” he bowed. “I do not know quite what came upon me.”
Hardly a recovery, but it was the best he could do and Dave appeared out of sorts for the rest of PMQs even when fielding the easiest of gimmes from his new intake, whom he could only identify from the mugshots an aide had stuck into his ministerial Panini collection. No one will forget Andrea Jenkyns who won Ed Balls’s old seat at the last election. “Blah, blah, blah,” she said, red-faced at forgetting her lines. Amazingly she still managed to sound more coherent than her predecessor ever had.
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