Innocent question on horsemeat scandal proves awkward for David Cameron at prime minister’s questions
For a prime minister still rehashing Friday’s big Europe speech, David Cameron got a pretty easy run from his own side on the Belgian empire question. They are lying in wait for him. So at prime minister’s questions, not a single Tory cabinet minister joined Labour leader Ed Miliband in cheerfully abusing him, though Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg looked glum, as if he’d just stepped in dog poo. On Europe, he has.
No, the subject that caused Cameron grief was food. Tory MPs should know better than to mention either horses or hamburgers in the presence of their party leader, let alone in the same sentence, as Thanet South’s carrot-loving legislator, Laura Sandys, did mid-session.
With a topical eye to the supermarket horse burger scandal, Sandys, who also champions the sale of ugly vegetables, reported: “The residents of Thanet enjoy burgers, but also love horses.”
Oh Laura, how could you? To anyone aged over 25 mention of burgers by a Tory triggers painful flashbacks of the then agriculture minister, John Gummer (now Lord Burger), force-feeding his four-year-old a burger on TV – the sacrificial daughter just had to be called Cordelia, didn’t she? – to prove she couldn’t catch mad cow disease. (So far, so good, Cordelia.)
As for horses, they can mean only one thing in the same paddock as LOL Dave. Yes, Raisa, the police horse ridden by the PM as a guest of Rebekah Brooks, flame-haired Morgana Pendragon at the court of ageing King Rupert and his Knights of the Bugged Table. In more feverish minds, Cameron had probably ridden Raisa to hunt foxes or mad cows.
Clearly poor Sandys had no idea what she’d done. Thanet diners were shocked to learn they may have been downing horsemeat, she said. What was the PM doing about it? As Labour MPs jeered, Cameron recovered as best a man could when he has just been stabbed in the front, Eric-Pickles-style. Extremely disturbing, Food Standards Agency inquiry, retailers “responsible for what they sell”, he countered.
That was enough to cue political hacks to ask Cameron’s spokesman if the boss feared he’d eaten the family pony. But worse was to follow. Labour’s Keith Vaz, an MP never knowingly under-publicised, demanded on behalf of fellow diabetes patients that No 10 launch “a war on sugar” to prevent the next generation being overwhelmed. Stirring stuff indeed. Cameron is already at war against al-Qaida, poverty, Herman Van Rompuy, cancer and much else. Surely one more war wouldn’t hurt?
When Vaz mentioned the amount of sugar (up to eight spoonfuls) in a can of Coke or Pepsi, Cameron told MPs that, as a parent “trying to bring up three children without excessive amounts of Coca-Cola, I know exactly how big this challenge is”. He reminded MPs of his Churchillian “diabetes action plan” and urged everyone, business, councils, the NHS, to fight sugar wherever they found him. “Sugar, you’re fired,” he almost said.
Apart from a brisk clash with Labour’s Rotherham new girl, Sarah Champion, over food banks (Labour had them, too, he protested), that was it, except for a small misunderstanding with Annette Brooke, a Dorset Lib Dem. What was Cameron doing to make “park home owners” eligible for the energy green deal, the MP asked.
The PM could not have been more helpful. And why not? “I have some [park home owners] in my own constituency,” he volunteered. Ah, but Brooke was talking about mobile trailer park homes. The kind of homes the Chipping Norton set owns come with their own park. Quite different.