Cameron clearly doesn’t rate Ed Miliband. That may be a mistake in the long run
but it worked fine today. The opposition leader returned to PMQs after a fortnight’s paternity leave and Cameron welcomed him with some warm ceremonial waffle about the new baby. Then came a
joke. ‘I know what it’s like,’ said Cameron, ‘the noise; the mess; the chaos; trying to get the children to shut up,’ [Beat], ‘I’m sure he’s glad to
have had two weeks away from it.’ This densely worded, carefully crafted, neatly timed quip had obviously been rehearsed at the Tory gag-conference this morning. The fact that Cameron had
time to polish it suggests that he anticipated no trouble from Miliband today.
The opposition leader raised the scrapping of the schools sports budget. Potentially this is tricky for the Tories. It might be interpreted as an attack on the fat and an attempt to turn our kids
into crisp-chomping lardbuckets. And it opens the PM to the particular charge that he’s depriving the next generation of a privilege he enjoyed himself. Luckily Miliband avoided the class-war
option and declined to mention ‘the playing fields of Eton’. He called Dave’s policy ‘daft’, and urged him to ‘u-turn’ on it.
The PM responded with two killer statistics. The number of schoolkids doing hockey, rugby and gym fell under Labour. And only one child in five plays competitive sport against other schools.
Miliband retaliated with some explosive ammo. He produced a letter from a sports co-ordinator in Chipping Norton, Cameron’s own constituency, which lamented ‘the demise of the sports
policy with a sweep of Michael Gove’s pen.’ But Miliband didn’t capitalise on this lethal weapon and Cameron blithely restated his intention to stop bundling schools up in
red-tape. Across the parliament, he said, the schools budget would soar by £3bn.
A planted question about the G20 gave Cameron a chance to delight us all with the second brainchild from this morning’s gag-summit. Ed Miliband had given a Guardian interview where he said,
‘in terms of policy we start with a blank page.’ Quoting this line out of context, Cameron sneered. ‘That’d be a great help at G20.’
Having establishing the theme of nullity he kept returning to it. Miliband was ‘the nowhere man of British politics,’ and ‘someone who knows nothing about anything.’ When
Miliband urged the PM to force banks to admit how many of their employees earn over £1m year, Cameron took a risk. He brought up Ed’s record at the Treasury. ‘The biggest deficit
in the G20,’ said Cameron. ‘A knighthood for Fred the Shred …’
Labour backbenchers were already howling him down, and when Miliband rose to reply his answer was lost in a torrent of ‘Black Wednesday! Black Wednesday!’ But Cameron braved this out
and returned to Ed’s own record. ‘The biggest deficit ever!’ he shouted at Labour. This is a significant moment in Tory history. Labour’s woeful cockup of the public
finances is now demonstrably more toxic than Cameron’s marginal involvement in Norman Lamont’s day of shame. So it’s official. The ghost of Black Wednesday has been exorcised.
The Speaker had a decent outing today. He’s lost his relish for the sound of his own voice. His brisk, authoritative style is increasingly impressive. And he gets more backbenchers to
contribute than any Speaker I can remember.
But a curious absence is becoming apparent on Wednesdays. Where are the LibDems? Nick Clegg no longer gets his jack-in-the-box moment half way through the session, which he always employed to
remind us what a piece of earnest rectitude he is. And his party is hampered by its over-representation at junior ministerial level in the Coalition. Their backbench membership is depleted and
they’re seldom called at PMQs. Or perhaps they’re all sitting in their offices putting big lines of ink through more bits of their manifesto. In any case, the Dem-deficit is very
noticeable. If such a thing as a LibDem strategist exists, they should act. The party is vanishing from the week’s biggest political forum.