Last week, if you can remember that far back, World War Three was about to start in Ukraine. The fixture was postponed, thankfully, and politics at Westminster has returned to the usual domestic blood-letting.
Both leaders were in chipper mood. Cameron sees everything moving in his direction, including the Labour party which has accepted his benefits cap.
Miliband was equally buoyed up. He was grinning and skipping at the despatch box like a boxing kangaroo. The energy giant SSE had just announced a price freeze till 2016. Which is exactly what Miliband prescribed last autumn. So today, at least, he appears to be running the country. Naturally he made the most of it. He mocked the prime minister for likening price regulation to ‘a communist plot.’
Cameron refuted Miliband’s authorship of SSE’s freeze. On the contrary, he said, it was all due to his decision to ‘roll back the cost of green levies.’ He quoted an internal SSE document commenting on Miliband’s price promise. ‘An externally imposed freeze would not affect the cost of supplying energy.’
But so what? The public will register a causal progession: Miliband urges freeze. Freeze arrives. Ergo freeze down to Miliband.
Both leaders were engaged in some pretty bizarre footwork here. Miliband was claiming credit for a benefit he didn’t create. And Cameron, to deny Miliband an advantage, was claiming that the benefit originated in his betrayal of his most dearly held principle.
Miliband is now allergic to an expanding list of political issues. Growth, unemployment, inflation and the deficit. Cameron enumerated them, jeeringly. In his desperation the Labour leader turned to a single clause from a single page (p47) of the OBR report which endorses his complaint that living costs are rising and living standards falling.
‘Ah, finally!’ said Cameron, with his favourite note of triumphant cruelty, ‘he’s got to the budget.’ He accused Miliband of ‘flailing around’ and of being ‘a man with no plan and increasingly no future’. Twice he hinted that Ed Balls supports his boss in public while privately briefing against him.
Miliband turned theatrically to Balls, with a comedy frown, and mouthed, ‘What does that mean?’ This gesture of friendship was slightly marred by Balls’s failure to reply to his leader. Or even look at him.
Miliband avoided the bingo question which backbencher Stephen Pound brought up. Pound is such an articulate, charming and witty MP that he’s become a perfectly useless politician. He got to his feet, wreathed in smiles and self-satisfaction, and asked the prime minister to distance himself from the ‘snobbish’ beer and bingo Tweet of last week.
‘We all know that he loves bingo,’ said Cameron, reciting from a six-day-old script, ‘because it’s the nearest he’ll get to number ten.’
That gag was intended for Miliband. Many northern MPs complained that the PM has neglected their toiling constituents. David Winnick shrieked that Cameron was too keen to boast about his achievements. A fair point but Mr Winnick squealed so loud that he nearly shattered his glasses.
Jenny Chapman posed the day’s trickiest question. She described a sick elderly constituent being forced to wait for an ambulance, ‘for four hours, vomiting blood.’ She warned the prime minister not to read out a prepared answer from his folder.
Cameron improvised a neat reverse-shot. Ministers are taught never to involve themselves in particular cases but Cameron played the concerned country doctor. ‘I’m happy to look at the circumstances and see what lessons can be learned. She says she doesn’t want that. But it’s the right thing to do.’
Cheeky. And it worked.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.