PMQs: If you're going to ignore a question, at least listen to it first

House Of Commons

David Cameron is a busy man these days, what with his never-ending tour of European capitals in search of something – anything – to pass off as an EU concession.

So busy he couldn’t make it to prime minister’s questions, giving George Osborne his first despatch box audition for the job that will become vacant sometime during this parliament. The kindest verdict? A work in progress.

The first rule of PMQs is that you have to at least listen to the question that you’re not going to answer. Osborne failed that hurdle. The chancellor was up against shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, a politician experienced enough to understand his limitations. Humour doesn’t come easily to Benn, so he played to his key strength: seriousness.

Humour doesn’t come easily to Osborne, either, but he has yet to wise up to that. Believing that no PMQs should start without a gag, Osborne opened his reply by saying how pleased he was there was “no Benn in the Labour leadership contest, but there was a Bennite.”

For a gag to work, it has to be both good and appropriate. As Benn had asked what the government was doing about stopping British citizens leaving the country to join Islamic State, the gag was neither. On the plus side, the chancellor did have just about enough emotional intelligence – a chamber devoid of any laughter is a always a help here – to realise his mistake and thereafter played out the session with a monotonal dead bat.

It was also, in its way, instructive. Over the last five years or so, PMQs has been written off as Punch and Judy politics, with both leaders using the occasion to trade insults, so to watch two politicians being polite and giving the appearance of listening to one another was something of a novelty. What it also showed, though, is that even without the theatrics, PMQs is still not a forum in which answers are forthcoming. To be fair to Osborne, this looked less as if he was being wilfully difficult and more like he didn’t have a clue what they were.

Isis and the Middle East are fairly low on the government’s priorities at the moment. Lower even than the Labour party. Uppermost on Tory minds are Europe, Europe, Europe, the economy more or less ticking over, and Europe. These were the questions for which Osborne had been prepared and he was now left to think on his feet. With a little help for Theresa May who whispered loudly to remind him about the Home Office Prevent strategy which is clearly not working as it should. “Prevent is working very well at preventing,” George more or less ad-libbed.

Benn dug a little deeper. With regard to the refugee crisis, “Can he tell the House what expectations he has for the new round of talks that UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is holding in Geneva?” he enquired. Osborne looked panic-struck. He had clearly never heard of this bloke Staffan de Mistura and had no idea there were any talks going on in Geneva and instead burbled on about how true humanitarianism involved not taking large numbers of refugees.

The shadow foreign secretary then reminded him of the previous government’s humanitarian policy which had been to let as many refugees as possible drown in the Med.

“Even though HMS Bulwark is going to have to be withdrawn for operational reasons,” Osborne said, “this government remains committed to doing something to help drowning refugees.” Though not anything necessarily involving ships. Tea and sympathy perhaps.

It was such a delicate skewering by Benn that Osborne didn’t realise just how badly wounded he had been. For a while, even, as he took friendly questions about the economy from his own backbenchers he seemed something like his own self. Yet on his way back to the Treasury from the chamber, the pain intensified. He looked down to find himself bleeding. Not fatally. But enough to leave a scar.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by John Crace, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 17th June 2015 16.23 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010