Miliband’s approval rating among Tory MPs has never been higher. They roared with joy as he got to his feet today. A foolish grin spread across his face, and his lips revealed a mouth full of showroom-white teeth. Then he began to giggle, which was unnerving. Either he had a deadly weapon up his sleeve. Or he was about to resign.
‘I welcome today’s fall in unemployment,’ he said. The Tory cheers could be heard across the river in Labour’s Lambeth heartland.
Miliband has spent the last year on disaster-watch. But the promised calamities have inflicted no damage. The slump? A memory. Inflation? Becalmed. The NHS? Don’t mention it. The bedroom tax? A dead issue. Even food banks, the cornerstone of Labour’s attack strategy, were quietly dropped from the debate.
Cameron taunted Miliband for his failure to raise health policy since last November. Back then the Labour boss had predicted a Christmas crisis caused by hordes of wheezing geriatrics expiring in mixed-sex broom cupboards.
‘He sat there day after day,’ said Cameron, ‘dying for it to happen. It didn’t.’
Miliband had the option to go international. Pick a crisis overseas and make himself look wise, sage and principled. But the fatcat call of Pfizer proved irresistible.
Pfizer’s courtship of AstraZeneca is like an arranged marriage between two sets of Tolstoy toffs. Miliband, the anxious dowager, frets about the serfs in the outlying cottages. Cameron, the gung-ho young heir, is desperate to screw the rich suitor for the biggest trousseau he can get.
Reality never encroached on the debate. This is because both leaders secretly want the opposite of their stated position. Miliband would like the deal to go through, and to go badly. Cameron just wants it to go away. Both used Pfizer to Pfib about each other Pfuriously
Cameron suggested that the bid demonstrates that every industrialist in the world is keen to gate-crash the boom now underway in low-tax, busy-bee Britain. He accused Miliband of ducking a meeting with the Pfizer chiefs so he could go campaigning in the local elections. Party before nation, in other words. Betrayal.
Miliband cast Cameron as a Thatcherite market-junkie. ‘Pfizer’s PR man’. He likened the deal to the Royal Mail sell-off which netted millions ‘for the chancellor’s best man’ and other Tory millionaires. Party before nation, in other words. Betrayal.
Cameron had a useful outing today, and deployed his resources skilfully, (that is with deft, professional dishonesty.) He blamed Miliband for powerlessness even though Miliband isn’t in power. He accused him of ‘playing politics’ with the issue which is like criticising a striker for aiming the ball at the net. And when Miliband attacked him for bungling the negotiation, Cameron just shrugged. Not me guv. He said he was restricted by a legal framework authored by Miliband when he was in government.
Here was Miliband’s chance. If the legal framework is useless, Cameron is a fool to retain it. If he leaves it unaltered, he’s a fool to criticise its inadequacies. But this wasn’t a day for nimble wits or memorable sallies. These two can wrestle each other to a standstill without breaking sweat. Had the Coalition not tampered with the constitution we’d be in the midst of a general election campaign today.
Miliband left the chamber with a face as glum as a wet bank holiday. Until he can turn good news into bad, and sunshine into thunder, his barren spring will continue.
More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us.