Today’s Prime Minister’s Questions was not a good one for David Cameron, but it could have been a great deal worse. With a U-turn on minimum pricing on the cards and open dissent in the Cabinet and on the backbenches, the PM arrived knowing he’d have his back up against the wall, even though Ed Miliband has struggled to make effective attacks on big issues in the last few weeks.
The Labour leader had some good jokes, too. His opening line – ‘in the light of his U-turn on alcohol pricing, can the PM tell us, is there anything he could organise in a brewery?’ – was particularly good, and set the tone for the rest of the exchanges. He also referred to Home Secretary Theresa May’s leadership ambitions and open disunity in the Tory party, which Cameron tried to deflect with a joke about being thrilled that the Labour leader and his frontbench were in place. He said: ‘The weakness in his argument is that my party had unanimous support for his leadership, as long as he keeps the Shadow Chancellor.’ This of course highlighted the lack of unanimous support within the Tory party for his own leadership but there wasn’t much the PM could do about that today.
He also tried to taunt the Labour leader about meeting with the trade unions by producing his diary with a great flourish. Normally mentioning Labour and trade unions in a PMQs attack sends the Tory backbenchers wild, with thigh-slapping, pointing, jeering and face-pulling at the Opposition. But today the most significant spectacle in the Chamber wasn’t the exchange between the two leaders, but the sight on the benches behind Cameron of ranks of almost fossilised Conservative MPs. They barely reacted to anything. It was only about 20 minutes in to the session when Cameron made a joke about Ed Miliband being a ‘champagne socialist’ that there was any discernible movement at all from the backbenches. Then, MPs started pointing and jeering, but not with the same tribal gusto that they normally possess at PMQs.