The pressure was all on Miliband today. With Cameron hurt, he needed to show that he can still press home an advantage.
First, we all had to listen to the Speaker, who rather enjoys listening to himself. He began with a long and winding overture about the dangers of prejudicing the Coulson trial. One sentence would have done it: yesterday’s convictions are mentionable, those due today aren’t.
But he rambled on and on. His legal witterings were delivered with all the clunking sonorities and ham pauses of an under-employed luvvie delivering the Gettysburg address. And he couldn’t stop interfering during the debate.
Miliband had carefully planned his ambush and committed its wording to memory. ‘For four years the prime minister’s hand-picked closest adviser was a criminal,’ he said. ‘He brought disgrace to Downing Street.’ Miliband then took MPs through the three specific warnings Cameron might have heeded about Coulson’s conduct. From the Guardian, from Nick Clegg, from the New York Times.
Bercow interrupted him twice. This seriously disrupted Miliband’s flow, and deprived his onslaught of momentum. No wonder the opposition leader’s face was thunderous by the end.
Cameron dodged the bullets by scarpering behind the Leveson report and quoting the bits that exonerated him. But he made an unforced error in the dying moments. Quick-thinking Miliband capitalised on it. Asked if Gus O’Donnell had raised concerns about Coulson’s suitability, Cameron airily replied that Leveson had dealt with that, along everything else. Leveson had not. Miliband challenged the PM on this. And he finished with his favourite new refrain: ‘He brought a criminal into Downing Street.’
Labour’s backbenchers punched away at the bruise. Ronnie Campbell had a different take on Labour’s killer soundbite. He said Cameron had ‘made history by employing a crook at Number 10.’ His rolling northern vowels gave ‘crook’ the same length as ‘luke’, which sounds a lot sterner.
Cameron reached for the biteback button and invoked Labour’s many blunders on spin. Dodgy dossiers, burying bad news, Damian McBride.
More missiles came his way. Yesterday he posed as a golden-hearted saviour who had generously offered Coulson ‘a second chance’. Chris Bryant said this revealed Cameron’s true estimate of Coulson. As a wrong’un all along. ‘He knew from the beginning he was taking a criminal into Downing Street.’
All together now…
Philip Davies rallied to the PM’s aid. He cited submissions made to select committees that supported Cameron’s judgment on Coulson. And he explained why Labour is kicking up a frantic hoo-ha about these trials: to deflect attention from their rudderless, clueless, friendless, principle-dodging and popularity-averse leader.
‘The hon. gentlemen put it rather better than I did,’ said Cameron. ‘Thank you.’
After that the PM rather retreated under Labour’s attacks. He leaned back, with his pink jowls squished out, and his little eyes glazing over, looking like an uppity shop-boy freezing out a difficult customer.
Miliband will be relieved to have landed some blows today. And his ‘criminal in Downing Street’ line will get lots of air-play. But is it that much of a novelty? I seem to recall a Liberal prime minister from Llanystumdwy who wasn’t always on the right side of the law.