David Cameron tries so hard. He tries hard to be a modern, liberal politician. But now and then, his mask slips. He’s a decent confident performer at the despatch box. A lot of training from his Eton days no doubt helps. But when he gets wound up, that soft cuddly mask slips and reveals the true face of David. And today was one of those days where he got wound up.
It was the first PMQs since the Easter recess. These occasions are usually boisterous and generally more so after a break. These things are to be expected. Labour MPs know that when Nick Clegg gets stressed he changes colour even to the roots of his hair (it goes a ginger shade when he’s under pressure), and they know that Cameron turns puce with rage when he is feeling the strain. So they try to corner him with awkward questions and facts.
That wasn’t what did it today though. Ed Miliband went with fairly predictable questions about the poor economic performance as disclosed in the GDP numbers this morning. In quarter four, you may remember, the economy shrank by 0.5%. Due, according to George Osborne at least, to heavy snowfall (this despite the growth 12 months before during even heavier snow). In the first quarter of this year, it’s been announced that the economy grew by 0.5%.
The Tories have called this ‘growth’ while Miliband pointed out that this just left us in exactly the same place as we were 6 months ago, except now our incomes are worth less in real terms than they were. So the economy is flat.
Cameron’s reply to this was that Miliband should apologise for previously declaring there would be a double-dip recession, which is something Ed M never said. Ed was happy to point out that after a year in office, the PM couldn’t blame Greece, Ireland, the Bank of England, the last Government, or even snow. The blame for current economic performance lies squarely with Cameron and Osborne.
That irritated the PM, but it wasn’t where it went majorly wrong for him. It began to go wrong for him when Miliband turned the NHS reform with his next set of questions. Cameron was forced to offer up a defence for the frankly pathetic performance of Andrew Lansley as Health Secretary. And this was where he began to turn an ever brighter shade of red.
After saying former Labour MP Howard Stoate had been beaten at the last election by the Tories, Shadow Treasury team member, Angela Eagle attempted to correct him by telling him that Stoate had stood down and not fought the election.
The Prime Minister’s response? Well, Cameron decided to go with what I’m sure will become a classic he’ll regret. He said
Calm down, dear!
Not the best of retorts really. He might have gotten away with “calm down” on its own. But putting the dear on the end just ensured he came across as patronising and sexist. It’s very likely that he wasn’t being intentionally sexist at all, but politics isn’t always about what you say but what you’re perceived to have said. And he has been perceived as a sexist bully, not far removed from the Bullingdon Club of his youth.
Not only did it rekindle images of Flashman, but it left him looking like someone who couldn’t make a half-decent argument to defend his position. As you can see below, it also left Nick Clegg looking decidedly uncomfortable and unhappy.
Don’t be surprised to see Labour asking questions on the NHS in coming weeks and months.