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The Tories’ secret weapon

16 February 2011

3:22 PM

16 February 2011

3:22 PM

Too much time at the barbers. That’s the opposition’s problem. Ed Miliband
showed up at PMQS today after a long morning lounging in the chair having his hair coiffed and burnished. His darkly gleaming scalp now looks like the kind of thing toffs scrape their boots on
after a morning’s shooting. And that’s precisely what the Prime Minister proceeded to do with him today. With no time for a strategy meeting beforehand Ed had just grabbed a list
questions from the last PMQs-but-three.
 
He began by having a go at Cameron on youth unemployment. But we know how Cameron deals with that one. Been a problem for decades, old boy. Miliband then challenged him on the economy. And we know
Cameron’s answer to that one too. Good job we’re not Greece, old boy. Miliband tried a third time and asked about back-to-work programmes. And Cameron was prepared. He produced figures
which appeared to damn Labour’s Flexible New Deal scheme. ‘We learn that 279,000 took part and 3,800 got long term jobs,’ said the PM. ‘Shame!’ called his back
benchers.

Ed sat down and the Tories jeeringly dared him to get up and have another pop. Instead the stately figure of Nicholas Soames was called. The girthful member for mid-Sussex, who looks as if he could
cause an eclipse just by standing up, asked a typically animated question about deregulation which was greeted by merry cheers all round.
 
Then Nick Raynsford invited the prime minister to imagine the aftermath of the 2012 Olympics. ‘Will he remember the warm welcome extended to the world by the newly elected Mayor
Livingstone?’ [Cue raucous giggles from Labour.] ‘Or will he recall the shocking images of people on the street because of housing benefit cuts?’ Cameron reflected the frolicsome
mood of the house. ‘I notice the honourable member couldn’t keep a straight face while mentioning Ken Livingstone.’


Comic interlude over, Ed had another go. He led with one of his bland but lethal quickie questions. ‘Can the prime minister tell us whether he’s happy with his flagship policy on
forestry?’ Cameron shrugged and grinned. ‘The short answer is no,’ he said with Blair-like insouciance. 

The issue of forests should be tricky ground for Cameron. It’s undemocratic; it’s being rushed through too fast; it appeared on nobody’s manifesto; rumours of an imminent
climbdown are rife; and the Coalition has been spectacularly inept at selling the policy which is now opposed by a resistance movement led by celebrities and green activists with half a million
signatures to wave at the government. Plenty of scope there for Miliband to embarrass his man and build an unanswerable case.
 
But instead of using the political detail he concentrated his energies on a single, personal attack. Drop the policy now. The prime minister is as likely to announce a U-turn during PMQs is he is
to eat a cyanide sandwich. He had no trouble ducking this silly question and he pretended that the policy wasn’t a policy at all. Just ‘a consultation.’ He turned this into an
assault on Labour’s arrogant, centralist manner of governing. He derided Miliband for ‘writing the questions before listening to the answer.’ And he finished off with a pun that
sounded much better in the house than it looks on the page. ‘His band-wagon has just hit a bit of a tree.’

Miliband sat down, deflated. He’d turned a potential government embarrassment into a moderate triumph for the prime minister. A tidy morning’s work. And another own-goal for Ed.
He’s turning into the Tory party’s secret weapon.


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