Whooo that was nasty. Today’s was the most vicious PMQs of the last twelve months. Easily. Ed Miliband started by quoting the case of a Londoner called ‘John’ who was concerned about living standards. ‘John’, however, wasn’t a disabled pensioner but a City fat cat concerned that next year’s bonus might be capped at two million pounds.
‘What’s the prime minister going to do to help him?’
Nifty tactics from Miliband’s team. Cameron might have floundered here but his reply matched the full force of Miliband’s attack. His government, he declared, had cut bonuses to a quarter of what they’d been under Labour.
‘And we aren’t going to listen to the croupiers who were in the casino when it all went bust.’
Toxic language. And contagious as well. The PM’s blistering insult sent wild roars ringing around the chamber. When Miliband stood up he seemed to rock back for a moment, like a wobbly skittle. The speaker called for silence. The roars went on. They were Tory roars. Miliband’s ambush had been neutered by Cameron’s snooker-hall language.
Miliband then accused Cameron of dispatching George Osborne to Brussels to sabotage the new EU limits on bankers’ pay. ‘They’re fighting,’ shouted Miliband, ‘for bigger bonuses for bankers’.
This was a second trap. But Cameron didn’t spot it. He blundered unknowingly towards Miliband’s baited snare. Ever keen to disprove the idea that he’s a banker-stroking capitalist buccaneer, Cameron said his government had imposed ‘the toughest rules on bonuses and transparency anywhere in the world.’
Miliband scuttled out and pounced. He quoted a Cameron speech from March 2008 where the Tory leader called himself ‘a free marketeer by conviction’. The City’s real problem, Cameron had said, was ‘too much regulation’. Miliband then linked ‘John the banker’ with the thousands of poor claimants hit by ‘the bedroom tax’.
Cameron met Miliband’s cunning with brute force. The damaging quote had come from 2008. A pivotal year. ‘That’s the year when the biggest bust in our history,’ he said, ‘was delivered by him and his henchmen.’
Henchmen. A pretty intemperate reference to Miliband and Balls. Both cabinet ministers at the time. Henchmen! This was ugly. This was personal. This was pub car-park stuff.
‘Let him get to his feet and apologise,’ said Cameron, packing as much heat and venom into his phrases as parliamentary convention will bear. His thuggish expression suggested that a fruiter insult lay on the tip of his tongue. ‘You messed up, so admit it, you effin slag!’
The noise in the chamber was now reaching hurricane levels. The Speaker called for quiet again and Miliband took the chance to alter the mood. A look of amused irony settled over his head-boyish face.
‘I notice the prime minister has a new tactic, to ask me questions. It’s good to see him preparing for opposition.’
He then unleashed a set of multiplication tables which appeared to show that the neediest will suffer most from housing benefit cap. ‘The vast majority of the disabled will be hit by the bedroom tax.’
Cameron brought the argument down to basics. The coalition has tabled £83 billion in savings and Labour has opposed every penny of them. He then used a Miliband ploy to explode Miliband. ‘He’s fond of reading out letters. I’ve got one here.’
Two OAPs had begged him for help finding the extra £60 per month they’d need under the reformed system.
‘They’re exempt,’ said Cameron in tones of cold fury. ‘But they’ve been terrified by his completely irresponsible campaign.’
What a captivating tag-match we saw today. Miliband, on searing form, was matched blow for blow by a coolly aggressive PM. To everyone’s surprise Cameron sounded like a real old-fashioned Tory. Rational, robust and right-wing. What’s come over him?
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.