It was Monty Python without the jokes. The focus of PMQs today veered surreally between
crisis in north Africa and early swimming pool closures in Leeds. The session opened in Security Council mode with Ed Miliband politely asking the PM to brief us on the humanitarian disaster
evolving in Libya’s border-zone. Cameron went into his statesman-of-the-year routine and announced that HMS York had docked in Benghazi with medical supplies.
At such moments the imperial ghosts of the Commons seem momentarily reawakened. Ed Miliband sounds like some Victorian stooge asking the Foreign Secretary to reassure the nation that an uprising in
a far-flung oriental possession is being energetically suppressed.
Having dealt with Libya, Ed Miliband moved to Bromley. He demanded to know why the Tory-governed council wants to close 13 of its 16 Sure Start centres. And to his credit the Labour leader managed
to sound utterly scandalised by this wicked attack on outer London’s vulnerable tots.
Cameron disingenuously turned this into a question about freedom of information. ‘We’ve asked every single authority to make public all its major spending decisions. Can he tell us why
Labour-run Nottingham refuses to do so?’
Miliband indulged in some pre-emptive gloating at this point. He invited his backbenches to confirm his view that the PM is always in difficulty when he starts asking questions. Labour duly
chuntered its agreement. But Ed was heading for trouble. His medium-term strategy at PMQs is to build Cameron into a figure of spectacular ineptitude who announces huge policy shifts every
Wednesday afternoon. This may be a long way from the truth but Ed has no lack of ambition in this campaign. What he lacks is execution.
Certain that he could force Cameron to overturn his Sure Start policy on live television he softened up the House by coolly observing that ‘the prime minister has a capacity to ditch a policy
and dump a colleague in it.’ He then moved in for the kill but his lines were ill-prepared and he managed to garble them. His head was over-crammed with jangling phrases. ‘We’re
getting used to PMQs U-turns,’ he said – a line which is both tuneless and forgettable. Then he forfeited a few crucial seconds fumbling for his next soundbite and he found himself
asking the PM to do too many things with r’s and s’s in them. ‘It was wrong to remove the ring-fence,’ he mumbled, ‘and he should reinstate Sure Start.’ The
cascades of liquid consonants drowned out his rhetoric. His voice lost power. His attack lost focus and the momentum sputtered into vacancy. His backbenches were silent. The PM had escaped, yet
again. Swift to capitalise on this advantage Cameron smiled cruelly at Miliband. ‘In a minute’ he crowed, ‘he’s going to give me a lesson on family loyalty.’
Miliband tensed up immediately. His face reminded one of a man holding his breath to drive out hiccups. Cameron had got him. And the first to notice this was Cameron, who, if he isn’t a bully
has certainly read the handbook. He finished with this verdict on his Miliband’s embarrassment. ‘When the party opposite considers his performance it could be “O, brother where
Rachel Reeves (Leeds W) complained to Cameron that her council wants to restrict the opening times of Bramley Baths, a popular local splash-o-rama. Indulging in a spot of Brownian motion the prime
minister chose to answer a different question altogether. Look at the education budget, he said, and ‘per-pupil funding’ is being protected.
If Gordon Brown watches these exchanges he must reflect bitterly that his nemesis has become his imitator.