Dave Cameron was batting on a good wicket at PMQ's today with the largest ever rise in the claimant count, but it wasn't his best performance, although he managed to get his sound bites in about the Government's bunker mentality. Sometimes he tends to crowd too many points and questions into one intervention and the central take home message is lost.
He was also thrown off track by Dennis Skinner, the 'Beast of Bolsover'. Dave interrupted his peroration to advise him to be quiet. The veteran MP was a thorn in the side of Mrs Thatcher who regarded him with respect as a very effective Parliamentarian.
Then Dave got ticked off by the Speaker for suggesting that the prime minister was a 'phoney' and had to withdraw this unparliamentary language.
For his part, Gordon Brown's message was that the Conservatives wanted more to be done but to spend less. Brown was in between a junior Scottish Office minister and leader-in-waiting Harriet Harman. It was interesting to watch her body language. First, she sat there grim faced and impassive. But then she got annoyed by the bench opposite and started to point and mutter at them and nod in agreement with the prime minister. Later on, she reverted to grim faced passivity.
When I was in Australia, it was suggested to me that she had some kind of aristocratic family relationship with the Pakenhams, who included Lord Longford, but I have not been able to verify this. She certainly has a rather icy demeanour. However, she plays well with the trade unions and with women Labour supporters and is now trying to present herself as a person of the left as prospective Labour leaders often do - it was a tactic used by Harold Wilson.
Nick Clegg actually made an impressive intervention about the link between the shocking events at Stafford Hospital and the Government's targets culture. Of course, if you don't have some means of measuring public sector performance, one can spend a great deal of money without any effect on outcomes.
In this case the outcomes were negative in the most serious sense for patients who received completely unacceptable treatment. For once the overused phrase 'Third World' was justified. The devoted advocates of targets like Michael Barber who wrote the book Instruction to Deliver have something to answer for. However, it was evident from the book that he had tremendous belief in what he was doing, but it really became a kind of ideology that was pursued in a very zealous way.