Wow. Dave had a real wobble at the start of PMQs today. Ed Miliband stood up, looking as
mild as a puppy, and asked about the ‘tip’ of two million quid recently paid to the boss of Lloyds. ‘In opposition,’ said Ed, ‘the prime minister promised,
“where the tax-payer owns a large stake in a bank, no employee should earn a bonus of over £2,000”. Could he update us on how he’s getting on with that policy?’
He was already seated when the first peals of laughter echoed around the chamber. Dave had stood up but he didn’t speak. Nothing came out. Silence seemed to have mastered him for a
micro-second. When his voice finally found the on-button he blurted out a ritual complaint that ‘it was the last government who bailed out the banks and asked for nothing in return …
and we want the banks to pay more tax.’
Wobble over, he sat down. Miliband tried to press home his advantage. ‘No bank bonus over £2,000! It’s still on the Tory website.’ Good move. No one will check the website
but the jibe creates the impression that the Tory spin-machine is publishing its own broken promises.
‘The country is getting sick of the prime minister’s pathetic answers,’ crowed Miliband. He asked Cameron to explain why he’d decided to cut taxes on banks. Cameron was on
firmer ground here. He had the numbers in his knapsack. He had the gags up his sleeve. He couldn’t resist a dig at Alan Johnson – ‘I know the shadow chancellor can’t do
figures’ – he said as he explained that Labour’s one-off bonus tax had raised £2.3 bn whereas the coalition’s bank levy will amass £9 bn by the end of the
parliament. ‘Even the shadow chancellor knows that 9 is more than 2.3.’
Cameron was back on track by now – at Alan Johnson’s expense. And Miliband promptly forfeited his position with a classic school-of-Kinnock blunder. He waffled. He burbled. He chose
flabby tactics and tried to embarrass Cameron by quoting Loose Cable’s absurd boasts from the fag-end of last year. He unleashed great paragraphs of guff which did nothing but give Cameron
extra thinking time. And Cameron had done his thinking in advance. He took a swipe at Ed for choosing the wrong career. ‘He should be on TV and let his brother run the Labour party.’ He
laid into Miliband as the man who sat idly by at the Treasury while his government failed to regulate the banks and let the deficit blow up like a puffball mushroom. ‘He’s the
nothing man of politics. … The shadow chancellor can’t count and the opposition leader doesn’t count.’
It was vicious, puerile stuff. And Cameron’s habit of baiting Alan Johnson is turning a little ugly. The Postman, with his glossy mane of silver hair and that genial twinkle in his eye,
has quite a fan-club among the winter-fuel allowance audience. He’s John Major plus sex appeal. Calling him thick is a charmless discourtesy, and the attacks boomerang back on the attacker.
Best of the backbench queries came from Angus Robertson, (SNP), who asked one of those questions which look great on paper. ‘Which is the worse political betrayal: a deputy PM who promises to
oppose higher tuition fees and supports them, or a prime minister who says he’ll introduce a fuel stabiliser and doesn’t?’ Cameron’s response was instant. ‘You
could top those with the SNP who said they were going to have a reference on independence and never did. As a predecessor of mine said, “Frit!”’
Petulant, ill-tempered and unenlightening, today’s session was strictly for the masochists and die-hards among us. But the leaders can learn important lessons from these exchanges. Cameron
should never again show up at noon on Wednesday assuming he’ll stroll it. And Miliband can be lethal when he strikes concisely.