It was the final PMQs before the sun-stroke season begins. Usually these are high-spirited Derby Day affairs and Ed Miliband came to the house knowing things could hardly be easier. A political grenade has just been lobbed into the prime minister’s bunker – by the prime minister himself.
He’s sacked two of his closest allies (and Ken Clarke). He’s fatally weakened himself in Europe by sending Lord Nobody to Brussels. And he’s surrendered to hypocritical calculation by stuffing his cabinet with skirt. Cameron the radical feminist? The silliest pose he’s ever adopted.
Miliband began by striking a note that he does particularly well: low-key, gloating irony. He congratulated the prime minister, along with ‘thousands of parents’, for junking Michael Gove. He quoted Cameron’s recent praise of Gove and asked, why sack him if he was such a success?
Cameron patted this aside and demanded to know why Miliband hadn’t mentioned today’s record employment figures. The folly of Miliband’s tactics was instantly revealed. Gove is a side-issue compared with Cameron’s sudden self-reinvention as a Suffragette. Equality between the sexes is one of the founding issues of the Labour movement. And Miliband had a golden opportunity today to extol his party’s record as the historic champions of liberty, and to present himself as the embodiment of an ideal that the sluggardly Tories are barely catching up with.
He fluffed it.
Instead he grudgingly welcomed the fall in unemployment totals. And his features were shadowed with guilt and anxiety. Which is almost incredible. Four years into the job and Ed still doesn’t know how to suit his mood to the headlines in order to make himself look like a winner. Bad news should prompt sorrowful defiance. ‘Under me, this tragedy would never have happened.’ Good news should prompt cheerful inspiration. ‘Under me, this triumph would have been twice its present size.’ But he still has the moldering air of a cloistered smart-alec, prised from his wonkish cell, and dragged blinking and protesting into the light of day.
After his final question he delivered one of those neatly balanced and cleverly alliterative soundbites that Neil Kinnock used to love:
‘A recovery people can’t feel. A cost of living crisis people can’t deny. And a prime minister people can’t believe.’
Which looks fine on paper. But its polished sheen shines far too brightly. And it’s out of step with public perceptions. Cameron was far nimbler:
‘I’m pleased with my team. And looking at the shadow chancellor I’m pretty pleased with his.’
Cameron was greatly assisted today by Harriet Harman. The Labour Party’s chief saboteuse last week called Gordon Brown a sexist pig for neglecting to make her Deputy PM. This week her destablisation programme continued on a radio phone-in. For no reason whatsoever she awarded herself a battlefield commission and began improvising new bits for the Labour manifesto. ‘Yes I think people on middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes,’ said the deputy-prime-minister-in-waiting.
What taxes? Cameron shouted at Miliband. Paid by whom?
Labour’s backbenchers were notably reluctant to ask questions that reinforced their leader’s lines of attack today. Fiona O’Donnell had a bash. When will the PM publish his tax-returns?
Tax. That was enough. Cameron brought up batty Hattie’s policy improvisations again. (Memo to Ms O’Donnell — if previous answers suggest that the PM will use your point to destroy you, improvise a new one.)
The session ended with no rowdiness or euphoria. All was as quiet as the Dignitas clinic when Faure’s Requiem starts to play. Which may happen quite soon for weary old Ed.
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