Both Ed Miliband and David Cameron turned up to PMQs today wanting to expose the flaws in their opponent’s character.

First, Ed Miliband taunted the Prime Minister about Labour’s new private rented sector policy. Now that Labour is producing policies which seem to have purchase with voters, the Labour leader has what some might describe as the ‘intellectual self-confidence’ to kick off PMQs not just with a Labour policy rather than a government cock-up, but also predict that the government will eventually concede that Labour has a point. He said:

‘On our proposal for three-year tenancies in the private sector, can the Prime Minister tell us when he expects to make the inevitable journey from saying they represent dangerous Venezuelan-style thinking to saying they’re actually quite a good idea?’

The Prime Minister replied that ‘if there is an opportunity to find longer-term tenancy agreements, to give greater stability, a proposal made at last year’s Conservative conference, then I’m sure we can work together. But if the proposal is for rent controls that have been tried all over the world including in Britain, and have shown to fail, I think that’s a very bad idea.’

Miliband leapt on this, claiming that this was a ‘very quick U-turn’. He certainly looked thrilled, like a football fan thrilled that his team had scored unexpectedly, when the PM mentioned the Tories’ own plans for longer tenancies (plans which were first revealed by Coffee House in 2012). But he was being clever here. Because the Conservatives have been working for the past few years on these longer-term tenancy plans, but have not been examining an upper ceiling on rents in the same way that Labour has. So the two parties have long had the same aim on one element, and very different stances on another element of private rented sector policy. But because the Conservative response to Labour’s private-rented sector policy wasn’t great, Miliband exploited the party’s confusion today. He wanted to suggest that ideologically, David Cameron is a bit of a sheet in the wind, blown about, rather than resting on the courage of his convictions. He didn’t refer to Labour’s energy price freeze, but he was trying to build up a pattern here.

The Labour leader split his questions today, and when he returned, it was David Cameron’s turn to tell the House what he thought of Miliband. If Miliband thinks the Prime Minister lacks intellectual self-confidence, Cameron thinks the Labour leader lacks backbone and principle. He used Miliband’s questions on Pfizer’s takeover bid for AstraZeneca to argue that his opponent was keen on playing politics with a serious issue. He didn’t refer to Miliband’s position on Syria, but he too was trying to build a pattern here of a party leader taking decisions to cause his opponents discomfort, rather than in the interests of Britain or the interests of those suffering. He said:

‘The most important intervention we can make is to back British jobs, British science, British R&D, British medicines and British technology. That is why I asked the Cabinet Secretary and my ministers to engage with both companies right from the start of this process and I’ll make no apology for that because we know what happens when you don’t engage, when you stand back, just say you’re opposed to everything, what you get is abject surrender and no guarantees for Britain. We’re fighting for British science and I just think it’s a pity he’s trying to play politics rather than backing the national interest.’

Miliband then said he would back the government in putting this deal to a public interest test, but Cameron later repeated his accusation about the party playing politics. Both men probably conveyed what they wanted to about the other, but it wasn’t a Prime Minister’s Questions where we learned much about government policy: it is still not clear what the government will really do beyond looking cross if its fight for British science isn’t successful and Pfizer doesn’t provide the guarantees it is looking for.

Tags: AstraZeneca, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Pfizer, PMQs, Rent controls, takeovers