IT WAS a festive Prime Minister’s Questions today; the last one before the right honourables break up for Christmas and the atmosphere in the Commons was very end-of-term and raucous. And it was entirely fitting that David Cameron should take five words – ‘UK unemployment at new low’ – and, in biblical fashion, turn them into 5,000.
Because, the backbone to almost every answer he gave, whatever the question, was that unemployment was down. He spun it out over pretty much the entire session.
The official figures, handily released this morning, are these: in the last three months the unemployment rate has gone down to a four-and-a-half year low of 7.4 per cent.
“It’s worth looking at the figures,” said Cameron in answer to Ed Miliband’s entirely reasonable but less impactful statement that more people than ever before were working part-time.
“Unemployment is down by 99,000. There’s been a 36,000 fall in claimants, 250,000 more in work. 1.2 million [more people] are in work under this government…” It’s a wonder he hasn’t had these stats cross-stitched onto Christmas stockings for his entire party.
Yes, but, said Miliband… more people than ever are in part-time work that is poorly paid or insecure. Average wages are £364 lower than they were a year ago, energy bills are £70 more. No, but, said Cameron… 70 per cent of the new jobs since the election (“and there have been millions”) are full-time.
Miliband accused Cameron of just reading out a list of statistics, while he himself was reading out a list of figures.
Then Cameron pulled out the joke he’d clearly been keeping in his back pocket, waiting for the perfect moment to whip it out. (You can bet the aide that thought this one up got a special Cameron pat on the back.)
“You don’t need it to be Christmas,” he bo-boomed at Miliband, “to know you’re sitting next to a turkey.” He was referring, of course, to shadow chancellor Ed Balls who is perhaps starting to look past his political best-before date. (Some sources even say Miliband has given him the gestation period of a baby – nine months – to buck up or go.)
This to-in and fro-ing is not particularly unusual for PMQs; indeed, it can sometimes be entertaining. But, as I watched, I wondered what would Education Secretary Michael Gove make of the scene in the Commons, if this were a classroom? What would Ofsted? There was so little useful knowledge, helpfully shared. No discipline, no order, endless repetition, people not listening, not answering questions properly. Insubordination.
And so many words flying about and yet meaning nothing. Clive Betts, Labour MP for Sheffield South East, told the story of a young girl in his constituency who had gone to school on Monday not having eaten all weekend. I found this story profoundly shocking and yet Cameron brushed it away with words that showed the information had not touched him on any level. Not even a flinch.
And I concluded that if this were a school, it would probably be put into special measures. No matter though! UK unemployment, at least statistically, is down and Cameron can bounce out and enjoy his Christmas.
But there are some things that, once learned, cannot be forgotten. The Spectator, just yesterday, exclusively revealed that Cameron is related to that infamous horse lover, Catherine the Great; they are second cousins, nine generations removed.
Be warned before you start Googling: once you see the likeness, you cannot un-see it.
First published in The Week on 18th December 2013.