Ed Miliband clearly has a new strategy for PMQs.
He began with some warm-up questions about the cost of the Afghanistan war, which he ended with a nice line about Cameron being “very crass and high-handed” when telling army chiefs, “You do the fighting, I’ll do the talking”. These were easily enough dealt with by the PM (although he did have an interesting line about wanting the strategic defence review to be implemented more quickly – more on that to follow.
But he scored a more direct hit when he began asking about DNA records of people who have been arrested for rape, but not charged.
He followed the same policy as last week, when he brought up benefits for cancer patients, by using quotes from a charity boss to make his point – an effective weapon which proves difficult for Cameron to dismiss so easily. It also followed the same pattern by choosing one small element of a much wider policy with which to attack the prime minister, about which Cameron was less likely to have a pre-prepared rebuttal.
It worked to the extent that Cameron avoided answering the question, choosing instead to attack Labour for proposing a VAT cut which had not been cleared by the shadow cabinet – a story we broke this morning. In the end, he was cut short by the Speaker.
Cameron’s hasty words with Theresa May, the home secretary, before answering the question, turned the exchange into as much an argument about ministers talking to each other in government as the policy itself.
It gave Cameron the chance to quip: “I understand there is some worry that in this government we actually talk to each other.” A great line, which Ed (not normally known for witty one-line put-downs) handled very ably, saying: “It would be better to talk to his colleagues before they put forward the policy than afterwards.”
All good knockabout stuff, at which Miliband matched Cameron, who is usually better at those kind of exchanges. But on the policy itself, Cameron failed to give a robust defence, which he could have done by calling Labour’s previous desire to hold on indefinitely to DNA data draconian and against EU law.
Last week, party officials were irritated when Cameron floundered last week on benefits to cancer patients, saying he should have been able to rebut Miliband better than he did. I wonder whether they will be similarly infuriated today, or whether this will go down as a necessary sidestep on an issue on which Labour is beginning to position itself to the right of the Tories.