Politics.co.uk Blog

Friday, 18 February 2011

What PMs do when they don't know the answer

Yesterday's launch of the coalition's welfare reform programme hit the slightest of hitches yesterday – but David Cameron was so smooth in glossing over the hiccup that most people will have barely noticed.

He was in east London, talking with work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith about the government's proposal to introduce a new universal credit. The speech went fine. Then came the questions.

The first appeared to be on topic, but wasn't really. This is a deadly combination for the prime minister, who must know what he's talking about at all times.

It was from Leslie Morphy, the chief executive of homelessness charity Crisis. She's worried about the contracting structure the government is adopting as it rolls out its 'big society' plans.

Cameron responded with – let's not beat about the bush – waffle. His generalisations were supreme. "For years we've had a government which has just led to the large players farming those on unemployment benefits and skimming off the top those who find jobs," he began. Completely unrelated to the question. But it didn't matter. Because, after having made one or two generalised points, he concluded thus: "That is very much the intention of our policy. Of course it's extremely difficult to put in place – and Iain's now going to have to explain how it's going." Talk about putting your secretary of state on the spot. Queue lots of laughter, and the situation defused.

After the proceedings had wrapped up I went and talked to Ms Morphy, who explained to me the detail about which the prime minister was so perplexed. It's about contracting arrangements – which sounds dull, but is actually pretty fundamental if the 'big society' is going to get off the ground. You can read the resulting news story here.

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