It was written in the faces at PMQs today. Ed Miliband seemed relaxed and happy as he exploited Tory splits ahead of Cameron’s Euro-address on Friday. The PM looked irritable and resigned, like a long-distance hiker whose brand new Timberlands have started chafing just a few yards from his starting point.
His conundrum is simple. Until he recommends carpet-bombing Brussels he’ll never placate the Euro-bashers. And his hope for renegotiation, even at its most conciliatory, will only inflame their escapological instincts.
Miliband asked if Britain would still be an EU member in five years’ time. Cameron kept his crystal ball hidden. ‘The UK is better off in Europe,’ he said. And with the Eurozone in turmoil, he argued that we should fix a better deal for ourselves while the rest aren’t looking. But his desire to ‘strengthen our relationship with the EU’ won’t please the Houdinis who want to get out. And he predicts that other member-states will fight like tigers to grab the best deal for themselves too. Oh blimey. A 27-man Euro-scrap is in prospect. This will not be pretty. Or cheap. And it could take ages. Like half a century.
The best Cameron could do was chide Miliband for making jokes instead of making choices. And Miliband mocked him back for ignoring unemployment and spending six months writing a speech that would create confusion for five years.
They finished by exchanging a few merry slanders. Cameron floated the scare-story that Labour will campaign for membership of the Euro in its next manifesto. Fat chance. Ed Balls hates the single currency because it deprives finance ministers of an opportunity to play with their trains. And Miliband accused Cameron of wanting to hang ‘a closed for business’ sign around Britain’s economy for the next five years. Equally untrue. Commerce will continue irrespective of the EU. And the only portion of our trade that depends solely on Brussels is the deluxe hospitality sector that accommodates visiting MEPs and their coteries of paper-shufflers and rule-book writers.
The house then took a quick detour into Labour’s opium-den: class war.
Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham, asked one of those tricky ultra-short questions. ‘When is the prime minister going to visit a food bank?’ Curt phrasing is only part of the tactic. The placing of the key word at the end of the sentence cuts the response-time to a couple of seconds.
But Labour spoiled it. They heckled even before Cameron had opened his mouth and this gave him a moment to collect himself. He let his pointy features assume an injured look. Then he sniffed that it was unfair ‘to use this as a political weapon against me.’ Labour, he said, had fostered a food-bank boom while in office and ensured that reliance on free grub soared tenfold. ‘It started with them!’ he cried.
Dan Jarvis, an angry army veteran, raised the issue of death-rates among the over-75s. He urged Cameron ‘to do more to help the elderly and less for millionaires’. This created a poignant vignette of the prime minister smirking as pensioners succumb to hypothermia while oligarchs flip through yacht brochures and decide what luxuries to blow their tax-rebates on.
Then we returned to reality. And to Europe. Margaret Ritchie warned Cameron against making ‘a populist speech’ that would dismay the Americans, alienate the Europeans, and ‘start a process that sleep-walks Britain out of the EU.’ Most sceptics would cheer every word of that. Except the ‘sleepwalk’ bit. The Houdinis want to be wide awake when, and if, the UK breaks free. And not walking but jigging for joy.