The Prime Minister declared war at PMQs today. Not once but twice in the same sentence.
‘We’re at war in Libya and in Afghanistan,’ he said, in a throwaway footnote to some ritual noises about his ‘huge respect for our armed forces.’ Until this historic
moment Britain had been engaged in peace-keeping and nation-building in Afghanistan, and in civilian protection and tyrant-bothering in Libya. But now it’s official. We’re mobilised on
two fronts. Ed Miliband might have made more of this but he was too busy mentally preparing himself for this week’s shock ambush. This week’s shock ambush wasn’t quite as shocking
as it might have been because it had exactly the same three-pronged shape as last week’s shock ambush.
Prong One: a minuscule point of detail that Cameron is bound to be unprepared for.
Prong Two: a highly emotive topic that will silence Tory catcalls.
Prong Three: an unimpeachable authority who backs Ed’s argument.
Last week’s attack used the terrible word ‘cancer’. This week’s used the even more terrible word ‘rape’. Miliband asked why the police are compelled to
relinquish the DNA of rape suspects who’ve been questioned but not charged. The trap worked a treat. Cameron, clearly clueless about Home Office policy on double-helix disposal, leaned across
to Teresa May for a quick chat about genome retention. This prompted Labour’s in-house Jack-in-the-box, Ed Balls, to blow up and start yelling that the PM knew nothing about his own
legislative programme. Cameron turned this straight back at Labour. ‘They’re worried?’ he said satirically, ‘that in this government we actually talk to each other?’
This took the momentum out of Ed’s carefully planned assault. ‘The shadow chancellor,’ Cameron went on, ‘and his leader don’t speak to each other at all!’ In
evidence he quoted Ed Balls’s suggested VAT cut last week but this was so far off the topic of DNA retention that he was shouted down by Labour. The Speaker cut Cameron off. This brought
Miliband’s summer offensive to a halt.
Cameron is developing a tic which has the makings of a serious vulnerability. When caught out unbriefed he makes his anxiety all too obvious by staring downwards, doing a sort of furious
Palmerstonian frown, and saying, ‘I’ve looked at this issue very carefully…’ Invariably he elicits hilarious jeers from Labour. They’re starting to notice this and to
make more of it.
Miliband impressed many commentators today. But I wonder. It’s taken him a year to find a way to discomfort Cameron and it’s taken him a week to overuse his tactics and school his
opponent in dodging further attacks. Labour’s wonks probably won’t notice. Doubtless they’re congratulating each other back at HQ right now and setting in train another mammoth
policy-sifting session in search of material for next week’s Three Pronged Thrust. The danger is that the public will conclude that Miliband can only hurt the PM by raising issues that barely
show up on a microscope. A man whose surname starts with a synonym for ‘teeny’ should be wary of seeming small-minded.