by Martin Odoni

It is often said that at times of great strain or terror, a person will always show their real face. That they will reveal themselves for who they truly are, be it a coward, a hot-head, coolness-personified, or just selfish and indifferent.

I think that claim is a little doubtful, personally. I find that at times of strain or terror, most people react quite mechanically, resorting to instincts that their upbringing has drummed into them, rather than in ways that flow naturally from their own personalities. Perhaps those instincts have become parts of their personalities, but there is a recognisable artificiality that sets in, especially when trying to contain anger or to hide fear. Dignity at all costs, I think that is the name we give it. But no. That is not a person being real. Sincerity, passion and inspiration – the earnestness of being true to what we most believe in – those are the qualities that bring out our truest selves, not fear.

Today, Parliament gave us prime examples of both; on the one hand, we saw a man under stress retreating into the feeblest, most simplistic, and most instinctive fakery imaginable, and on the other, we saw a man full of passionate belief in what he was saying, putting on perhaps his finest-ever performance in Parliament. In the House Of Commons, the weekly joust of Prime Minister’s Questions saw Ed Miliband, leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, confront David Cameron, and deliver one of the most brutal verbal pastings that Cameron has ever experienced since coming to power in 2010. The issue at stake was one of blatant, casual corruption in High Office, after two veteran Members Of Parliament and former Cabinet Ministers, Labour’s Jack Straw and Conservative Malcolm Rifkind, were both revealed in a sting operation to be acting as, so to speak, “Parliamentary bounty hunters” i.e. that they were offering to act in Parliament on behalf of a (fictitious, it turns out) Chinese company, in exchange for money. A little like the “Cash-For-Questionsscandals of the past, the “Cash-For-Access” revelation is the epitome of Parliamentarian corruption, as well as anti-democratic, as the MP guilty of taking the money is making himself a representative of whoever pays him the highest price, rather than of the people who elected him.

Miliband, never blessed with the most authoritative speaking voice, started a little shakily, but he soon warmed to his subject, and found his articulate best as the exchanges with the Prime Minister became increasingly heated. Miliband was arguing for stricter, tighter controls on MPs financial activities outside their Parliamentary work, specifically a ban on them being allowed to hold a high-profile second job of the likes of a directorship. He asked, politely, whether the Prime Minister was in favour of leaving the current system unchanged. The response Cameron offered was that the rules as they stand need enforcing firmly. This did not seem entirely to answer the question (does he ever?), although Cameron then added that changes had already been made during the current Parliament, such as the (largely-toothless) Lobbying and Recall Acts.

It was noticeable when Miliband got to his feet the second time that he was slightly irritated by the, as usual,  roundabout answer he had received, and quoted something Cameron himself had written in 2009; –

Double-jobbing MPs won’t get a look-in when I’m in charge.

In fairness to Cameron, this was one of the weaker aspects of Miliband’s performance, as it was something of a quotemine on his part; the piece he was quoting from was in fact a criticism of ‘dual mandates’ i.e. Members of Parliament in Westminster also sitting in one of the smaller Parliaments around the rest of the UK.  But even so, the principle is much the same, especially the parts where Cameron argued “Parliament must be a full time commitment” and referred to serving “two masters” – I can see little practical or ethical difference whether the second master is a private company or a secondary Parliament – so it was probably okay for Miliband to use it.

Cameron was noticeably shaken when he responded again, but if he felt the quotemine was unfair, it is interesting that he did not put the record straight. But he also failed to answer Miliband’s point – again. And here is where my earlier point about strain and terror comes to the fore. Cameron’s answer, delivered in a withering voice, was a rambling attack on Miliband for his early draft proposal for banning a wide variety of second jobs for MPs, one that, Cameron claims, would still allow an MP to be a Trade Union Official.

That immediately set metaphorical alarm bells off in my head. Any time a Conservative says anything on the lines of, “Trade Union! Bad! Bad! Bad!” there is always a very distinct overtone of mechanical reversion-to-type. It is a little like a Creationist saying, “Adolf Hitler was an atheist!” (he was actually a Roman Catholic), a UKIP supporter crying out, “You’re defending child abuse!” (just for voting for any party other than UKIP), or an American militarist crying out “What about 9/11?!? We gotta stop dem Moo-zlimz takin’ over!!!!” In other words, it is a ‘hot button’ that the respective parties use to distract from and silence an argument that they can feel themselves losing. Trying to scaremonger about the ‘threat’ or ‘menace’ of Trade Unions has been a standard tactic of British Conservatives dating back to the 1970’s, since the (largely-exaggerated) ‘Winter Of Discontent’, and has been a particularly handy emergency cry at times when the immediate topic of discussion has been an uncomfortable one for them. Pretty much every time Tories resort to it, you can tell straight away that they are being evasive, therefore not being honest, therefore not saying what they are really thinking.

Cameron, in short, was on the run.

I suspect Miliband sensed the same slight edge of panic, as after that he really pushed Cameron far more strongly, and with far more sureness, than I have ever seen him do before. Without hesitation or the slightest stumble, he placed on record a firm promise that his proposed new rule would never allow an MP to become a paid Trade Union Official, a company director or a paid consultant. There were no obscurities, no havering, no possible hidden meanings, no ambiguities, just the firmness that only comes from sincerity. There was a note of anger in the challenge, but no fear or awkwardness, as he asked whether the Prime Minister would agree in principle (finer details to be ironed out later, which is entirely reasonable) to such a new rule.

Yet again, Cameron evaded in the most shameless and obvious way. He dragged in more irrelevances, this time citing Tristram Hunt’s history as a teacher. “I think Parliament is stronger when we have people with different experiences coming to our House.” Well yes of course, but most of those experiences will have happened before they became MPs anyway. Miliband is not, after all, proposing that MPs must only be people who have never had a different job, merely that they should not have a major secondary job at the same time as serving as an MP, especially not one that could lead to a conflict-of-interest. Cameron’s next remark seemed even more harried, even detached from the content of the very debate he was in the midst of. “We must impose strict rules and punish people when they get it wrong.”

Yes, Mr Cameron. We must. Were you not paying attention? That is precisely what Ed Miliband was proposing. But you kept arguing against it.

Miliband’s response was to reiterate his overall position, including another explicit commitment to support extending the proposed ban to Trade Union Officialdom. Here was where Cameron’s dithering dishonesty and flustered fakery became almost embarrassing to behold, as he restated, in barefaced contradiction of everything that had been said and done right in front of him over the previous four minutes or so, that Miliband was proposing a ban that did not extend to Trade Union Officialdom. Even though Miliband had so plainly, explicitly and unambiguously promised that it would, and that furthermore he would be perfectly happy to put the full details of the proposal up for negotiation later. It was an alarming display of dishonesty from Cameron, pusillanimous in its avoidance of the questions he was actually being asked, and also deeply insulting to the intelligence of everybody who was watching. Did he imagine that he was the only MP anybody was paying attention to or something?

Cameron, clearly losing track of where he was and getting extremely confused and flustered, then tried to change approach completely by criticising the ‘timing’ of Miliband’s proposal. This was, again, bizarre, as when better to introduce a proposed new rule to combat Parliamentary sleaze than just after a case of Parliamentary sleaze has been uncovered (albeit, a case that would not have been very greatly affected by this rule-change)? Cameron then completely fired into the long grass by raising another total irrelevance – David Miliband’s high outside-earnings during his time in Parliament.

You could almost hear the rest of the nation’s collective cry of, “So freakin’ what?!?”

This cheap shot by Cameron was not just irrelevant – Ed Miliband is no more responsible for his brother’s private business dealings than the current Queen is for the Dissolution Of The Monasteries – it was also something of a non-sequitur. Cameron was complaining about timing, then in the middle of his ‘point’ he seemed to start talking about something akin to would-be nepotism. Cameron sounded pathetic. Evasive, confused, gibbering and desperate, he was thrashing around looking for anything to use as an insult against Miliband, instead of simply saying yes or no. (So much for an end to Punch-&-Judy politics, eh?)

By now, Miliband clearly had the scent of blood in his nostrils, and any exasperation he felt at Cameron’s ineffectual stonewalling was overcome by his certainty in what he was arguing for. He reiterated one more time his unambiguous offer to extend the proposed ban to Trade Union Officialdom, and challenged the Prime Minister to state whether he would be voting for Two Jobs or for One Job. It was interesting to note that Miliband was landing heavy verbal blows that left Cameron bruised and punch-drunk, without being particularly aggressive. He was just inviting Cameron to do a deal in full public view, to make a promise to the British people to combat sleaze. But see the harm such a request was able to do! Cameron appeared allergic to sincerity, as though any attempt on his part to show any will bring him out in breathless flushes.

Cameron’s response yet again was to regurgitate the irrelevant, fear-mongering horlicks about Trade Unions, this time going as far as to accuse the Labour Party of being owned “lock-stock-and-barrel” by the Trade Union movement. It is not of course, and has not been since Tony Blair revised Clause IV. But even if it were, once again, so what? That is plainly nothing to do with what was under discussion, and by bringing Trade Unions up yet again, Cameron only reinforced how clearly he did not wish to be part of this conversation. Instead, he seemed almost to be trying to relive conversations that had ended in about 1986, furthering the strange disconnect between the Prime Minister and what was happening all around him.

Finally, Cameron offered a deal to Miliband, “No more support for Trade Unions from the Labour Party, then we’ve got a deal!”


Cameron was saying that, for him to support a rule minimising MP’s freedom to take up secondary jobs, Labour must completely abandon any and all involvement with its largest support base? That is the most ridiculously lopsided ‘offer’ I’ve heard of since ‘The Herschel Walker Trade’ in the National Football League in 1989. Had Cameron offered to abandon all support for and links to the affluent and wealthy classes, then it would be a more even proposal, but as it stands, it is just a ridiculous demand dreamt up off the top of his head. Again, Cameron was making matters worse for himself; he had now compounded the air of helplessness surrounding him, by giving the impression of a big baby throwing a tantrum for being made to get out of bed, while simultaneously sulking about not being taken to the park.

Miliband allowed a note of, clearly very real, contempt to enter his voice when he offered his final reply. “Let’s talk about a party bought and sold by the hedge funds!” he mocked, referring to the shameless, never-ending sale-of-principles by the Tories to Big Business. In many ways, Cameron had given Miliband an open goal by constantly banging on about Trade Unions and throwing badly-aimed cheap-shots, and it can be seen as impressive self-restraint on Miliband’s part that he waited until now to abandon appeals for an agreement and to send an insult back the other way. To an extent, it did not really matter whether Miliband even bothered to mention it – although it is a point that always bears repeating as the damage caused by Big Business interference in politics is always far more dangerous than any ‘threat’ from Trade Unions – as it was already clear that he had won the debate more emphatically and more completely than any other he has taken part in.

What the debate showed us was twofold. First, the strain and terror of being forced to discuss conflict-of-interest, when leader of a party that is routinely dominated by people in such conflicts, turned Cameron into a cardboard cut-out Tory stereotype. His every word, his every reaction, seemed to come out of a 1970’s Conservative Party election leaflet. It was the primitive old knee-jerk instinct to invoke the spectre of ‘infernal’ Trade Unions, as though the worst things that have happened in living memory were all strikes. Cameron knew that he had absolutely no strong ground on the subject he was being asked about, so on instinct, he desperately invoked the issues of his childhood – trying to find any ground, no matter how irrelevant or obsolete, that he knew Labour might be vulnerable on. Such feeble, obvious evasion is made no less dishonest by being so obvious. Cameron should have resisted the instinct, because it will no longer work on an electorate with decreasing memories of the 1970’s. But he did not resist it, and so his performance today was atrocious. That is telling, for whatever else we might accuse Cameron of being, we know that he is not a bad performer. His strongest card has always been that he is quite a polished public speaker. But today, he was so bad that even some of his opponents, like myself, began to feel almost embarrassed for him. He was ‘not himself’, shall we say?

At the other extreme, I have never seen Miliband so in control or so dominant in a debate. Part of the reason for his victory was that, with Cameron doing so abjectly, it was almost impossible for Miliband not to beat him. But even so, there was definitely something different about Miliband this time. He knew without hesitation that what he was proposing was right. He knew that most people around the country will approve of his proposed rule change. He knew that the conduct of Members Of Parliament over the last thirty years and more had been dominated by shameless cynicism, narrow interests, and personal greed, and that it was high time that action was taken to put a stop to it. He was not just hoping, or gesturing, or feeling his way, he knew. And with that knowledge, Miliband was able to debate with a firm sincerity that contrasted completely with Cameron’s faffing, and even came across as charismatic towards the end of the exchanges; now, charismatic is not a word I have ever associated with Ed Miliband, but charisma comes from a certainty in what one is saying. He was not particularly aggressive – as I said above, his questions for Cameron were largely composed of appeals-to-conscience rather than attacks – nor was he more than intermittently angry. He did not need to be, because he was arguing for something he clearly believes in. It meant he was able to be himself, and the result was a performance so real that it is misleading to call it a ‘performance’ at all.

Fear and stress make people into something dishonest, clumsy and confused. We might speculate that these are the real qualities of Cameron finally being revealed, but whatever the case, he was avoiding reality, not unveiling it. It was Miliband’s sureness that won the day, and perhaps gave us a critical glimpse of the kind of statesman he could potentially be if he fights more openly and frequently for what he really believes in.