Will humour be the king when they come face to face?
Probably the most eagerly awaited political encounter for years will take place at 12 noon on July 4th when the new Labour leader, Gordon Brown, will face David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions for the first time.
The format will be familiar – the opposition leader gets a maximum of six questions which he can use when he wants but the Prime Minister always has the last word. How are the two going to play it? Who will come out on top? And most important of all – how will this appear on the brief snippets on the bulletins?
Cameron has got one thing in his favour – he’s been doing it for more than a year and a half against Blair who has managed to see off four previous Tory leaders. Brown has, of course, had treasury questions but that is not the same thing. These don’t take place weekly and any of the ministerial team can be allocated to answer.
With PMQs there’s no hiding place for either leader and both of their performances will be scrutinised at length.
In his budget speeches Brown has shown himself to be the master of surprises as happened with his tax cut announcement coming right at the end in the March statement. Cameron then had to respond immediately without knowing what was coming. Maybe Gordon is planning a further surprise for that Wednesday.
On July 4th the pressure is probably going to be greater on Cameron than Brown because until that moment the news will have been dominated by the Downing Street changes and Brown’s new plans. This will be an opportunity that Cameron has to seize and use effectively – but how does he get the tone right?
Last month the Times columnist, Mary Ann Sieghart, made these observations: “…there is no need for the Conservatives to attack the Prime Minister-elect personally. If anything, it would be counter-productive, as voters donâ€™t like character assassination. But they can illustrate Mr Brownâ€™s weaknesses by emphasising Mr Cameronâ€™s strengths….the Tory leader to try to disarm his new Labour counterpart through teasing and humour. It didnâ€™t work well with Mr Blair, who simply laughed along. But Mr Brown is more easily provoked and more likely to become thunderously aggressive. That wonâ€™t go down well with viewers at home.”
Sieghart is no Brown supporter and I am not so sure that it is going to be that easy though I think she is right about the danger of Brown becoming aggressive. But Gordon has been sitting next to Blair for a decade watching how this operates and, no doubt, he will have thought this one through. My guess is that, at first, we will see a quieter Brown who will speak much slower to calm the atmosphere
There’s no doubt that PMQs can have a big political impact. Just look back to the first session of 2006 after Charles Kennedy’s resignation when Brown Fife neighbour, Ming Campbell, stood up to ask the first of the two questions that the Lib Dems leader is allocated. When Campbell got to his feet he hesitated a touch and lost it. His betting price on succeeding Kennedy eased dramatically after the performance and Simon Hughes became favourite.
Roll on July 4th – the public tickets will be the hottest in town.