by Jon Ashworth
Earlier this month we learnt that the prime minister has completed angry birds. On every Thursday we learn what business the government will bring to the Commons over the next week. At first sight these two events should not be connected, but I’m beginning to wonder if they are.
The prime minister revealed his adroitness at the startlingly popular ipad game in a Sunday newspaper interview a few weeks ago. The marvellously patrician Sir George Young – leader of the House of Commons and lord privy seal – reveals the government business through a weekly statement on the floor of the Commons every Thursday at about 11.30.
This weekly business statement is one for real parliamentary connoisseurs. It has often been the backdrop to dazzling displays of wit and repartee such as Robin Cook versus Eric Forth. Parliamentary historians will recall that Michael Foot’s mastery in the chamber came into its own through his time as leader of the House. In more recent times Harriet Harman and Alan Duncan was always an entertaining joust.
Backbench MPs love the weekly business statement and if it didn’t exist we would have to invent it. Essentially it’s an opportunity to get virtually anything you want on the record providing you preface it with “can the leader of the House schedule a debate on [insert issue]”. So suppose you didn’t get the chance at home office questions to raise that police station the Tories are shutting? Demand of Sir George he schedules an urgent debate on it. Desperately need to get your support for your local paper’s pet campaign on the record? Demand of Sir George that he absolutely must find time for a debate on it. And it’s not just an opportunity to name check some vital local campaign, more accomplished parliamentarians use the opportunity for a spot of mischief making too. Demand of Sir George he schedules a debate on cabinet ministers and speeding points (I’m surprised no wag has done that so far). So although the leader of the House’s business statement is not quite PMQs, it still ranks as a not to be missed event for the most parliamentary oriented of my fellow parliamentarians.
But it has a serious function as well, to let us know what legislation the government is bringing to the Commons in the next week. But here’s the thing: in recent weeks there has been hardly any government legislation. Sure we’ve found things to fill Commons time with as we’ve enjoyed debates on all kinds of varied issues. So we’ve had a generous run of opposition day debates, we’ve had other general debates on the economy (where we forced a vote and defeated the government); debates on the future of town centres; on the council of Europe; on ports; on government announcements; on pubs; on financial education and lots lots more.
Some of these debates have been instigated by the backbench business committee – one of the best reforms of this parliament, others are “general debates in government time”. Of course many of these have been important debates of significant interest to our constituents. But what us whips call “votable government business” has been few and far between.
That’s because there has been hardly any government legislation in the Commons these last couple of months. Rather surprising for a government elected only 18 or so months ago. It’s in part because they have got themselves into such a mess with their legislative programme with so much of it bogged down in the Lords. But it’s also part of a wider problem with this government which Gavin Kelly so brilliantly exposed recently.
Cameron’s government is one more suited to the rhythms of opposition life, seemingly incapable of adjusting to the demands of being in government. Take what looks likes to be a shambolic handling of child benefit cuts or the way in which Caroline Spelman tried to sell off our forests. In the Lords there is a logjam where ill thought through legislation is routinely shredded, votes are lost and the government often forced to u-turn. It’s no wonder that Sir George Young has apparently castigated colleagues telling them they need to prepare better drafted bills for the next parliamentary session.
But I’m not sure if Sir George’s admonishments will be enough. This government simply does not give the impression that it puts in the hard, exacting detailed policy work needed to legislate effectively. Cuts, cuts and more cuts is the only show in town.
This lack of attention to detail manifests itself in David Cameron’s own performances. Both times when I’ve managed to get called at PMQs he was unable to answer my question. He got muddled on the number of police officers he’s cutting and another time was unable to tell me when he last met a young unemployed person. It’s a patter we see consistently at PMQs where Ed Miliband continually wrong foots him. I’m often surprised at how poor Cameron is on the detail. It’s not like the prime minister won’t have been furnished with all the latest facts and figures from the very brightest officials in the civil service machine. Ahead of every PMQs, those super bright officials will have packed his red leather folder with the very highest quality briefing material. Perhaps the prime minister prefers just to make cheap digs at veteran MPs, rather then read up on all the details so he respond on the substance of an issue.
It’s not just PMQs, his health reforms are both dangerous and chaotic, and he turned his attention to them far too late in the day. Despite his bluster, he simply failed to put in the hard work ahead of the EU summit, and for all his triumphalism, left us isolated. And we know he simply doesn’t get it when it comes to understanding the pressures on household budgets everyone is feeling.
But bravo to the prime minister, he has worked out how to finish that level of angry birds where the green pigs are wearing cowboy hats and the only birds that you can throw are the irritating boomerang ones. But given the mess that his legislative programme is in and given that despite his confidence he keeps getting the details wrong, maybe in PMQs in 2012 David Cameron should spend a little less time messing about with computer games on his ipad and a bit more time reading those tiresome policy briefings in his red folder.
Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South and an opposition whip.