When Ed Miliband began at PMQs by asking about Egypt, it looked like he was going to do six high-minded questions on foreign affairs and thus dodge the political attack the Tories had lined up for him. But that wasn’t Miliband’s plan, after a couple of questions on Egypt he shifted to education. I suspect that by the end of session, he wished he stuck to what’s going on in Tahrir Square. For Cameron took the return to domestic politics as an opportunity to relentlessly batter Labour over its links to Unite and Unite’s behaviour in Falkirk.
Cameron and Miliband went at each other with real needle. There was a level of personal animus between the two of them that you don’t normally see. Cameron accused Miliband of reading out ‘questions written by Len McCluskey of Unite.’ Miliband shot back that he’d take no lectures on ethics from the man who had brought Andy Coulson into government. But Cameron won the exchanges with his final response, slamming Miliband as ‘too weak to run Labour and certainly too weak to run the country.’ The Tories are determined to keep on branding Miliband as weak; their polling tells them this perception is his biggest vulnerability.
For the rest of the session, Cameron kept shoehorning Unite into every answer until the Speaker put a stop to it. It was remarkable how on message the Tory benches were, even normally independent-minded MPs like Steve Baker and Richard Drax were prepared to read out questions so friendly that they sounded like they must have been drafted by the whips.
It is actually regrettable that the row over Unite obscured the substance of Miliband’s questions. For they revealed something important, which is that Labour is opposed to any new school in an area where there are a surplus of places—regardless of the quality of them. Miliband simply wants to fill up existing schools regardless of whether they are any good at getting the best out of children. It was proof that he doesn’t believe in choice or competition driving up standards. It also places Lord Adonis in a difficult position; he has been reassuring people that this policy only applied to areas with a surplus of good school places.