There comes a moment in a PM’s journey when he crests the ridge and starts on the downhill leg. David Cameron made that unhappy transition today. PMQs began with a gag from a Labour backbencher.
‘The prime minister may believe there’s no alternative to the double dip. But some in the cabinet believe there is an alternative. To him!’
Cameron replied by listing his usual trinity of attainments. Lower deficit, more jobs, interest rates at record lows. Then Ed Miliband had a go. Instead of raising an issue, he went for Cameron’s reputation.
‘Given the government’s U-turn on alcohol,’ he said, ‘is there anything the prime minister could organise in a brewery?’
Cameron improvised. He said he planned to throw a party to celebrate Ed Ball’s longevity as shadow chancellor. Hardly the greatest riposte. Miliband lurched at him with a deadly blade.
‘The fact is that he’s been over-ruled by the Home Secretary.’
Labour erupted with gloating catcalls. The TV cutaway shots showed Theresa May standing in a crowd of colleagues beside the Speaker’s chair. Her gaunt, bird-like face looked awkward and uneasy. And her multi-coloured scarf, tossed around her shoulders, seemed inappropriately festive. How had she ended up, like this, so far from the front bench, and half-hidden yet uncomfortably conspicuous? By coincidence, her placement in the chamber reflected her image in the country. She lurks at the fringes, inscrutable and calculating. An enigmatic menace.
Miliband moved on. From internal Tory troubles, he turned to splits within the Coalition and to Vince Cable’s alternative growth strategy. ‘We don’t want to be Japan,’ Cabled had warned. ‘Is he speaking for the government?’ asked Miliband mildly. The PM reached for another of his favourite boasts. Car production is higher than ever.
‘Taxi for Cameron after that answer,’ Miliband crowed. And he quoted a Cameron loyalist, Baroness Warsi, who endorsed her leader by claiming, ‘he has support from large parts of his party’.
‘Maybe he’s got the support of large parts of the cabinet,’ said Miliband.
Cameron’s response was revealing. Turning sideways, he crinkled his face into a smile and giggled into his briefing papers. Perhaps he wanted to suggest careless enjoyment of a deft parliamentary put-down. Instead he looked weak and weaponless. Like the bullied kid who snickers at the jibes of his tormentors out of desperation and fear.
Finally Cameron managed to launch an offensive against the Labour leader. ‘A letter of complaint’ had reached him, he said. It came from ‘Ed in Camden’. This was a shameless rip-off of Miliband’s witty attack on him last week. Straight away, that halved its impact. ‘Ed in Camden’, said the prime minister, was angry that he couldn’t move from his £2m house – ‘acquired thanks to a combination of inherited money and property speculation’ – without forking out 7 per cent in stamp duties imposed by the Tories. This was good material, to be sure. But Cameron’s harsh, bellowing manner deprived it of any mirth or joy. It all seemed personal and ugly, like a bathroom embarrassment broadcast to the nation by accident.
Labour’s backbenchers then moved in for the attack. But no attack came.
Significantly, the whips hadn’t orchestrated their usual flash-mob of volunteers all hammering away at a particular issue. Government policy was a footnote today. It was all about the mood of the House and about the emotional temper of the Tory party. And about the destiny of its leader, now visibly wounded and flailing in circles, while silent predators are edging forwards.
Ed Miliband seems to have decided that mockery is enough to topple his foe. He may be right. This was one of those strange occasions in parliament when nothing happened. And nothing changed. Yet everything is different.Tags: David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Prime Ministers Questions, sketch, Theresa May, UK politics