This was a dangerous PMQs for Ed Miliband. The Christmas break has not been particularly good for the Labour leader, with criticism being fired at him from his own supposed “guru”, Maurice Glasman – and a more coded warning shot from his own front bench in the form of Jim Murphy.
His relaunch on Tuesday fared little better, as Jim mentioned in his post yesterday.
Miliband’s vulnerability was made clear when, on standing up to speak, he was given a bigger cheer by the Tory benches than his own.
The Labour leader in response played a fairly straight bat, asking about rising train fares. This was a sensible topic to get stuck into, both because it is one millions of people feel very strongly about, and because it helps develop his theme of EdM v bad capitalism.
But the exchange quickly got bogged down in technical detail, and anyone still listening was unlikely to be following what the two leaders were talking about. Labour had given the train companies greater flexibility to charge passengers more, but had suspended that flexibility in the run up to the general election. The suspension then ended under the Tories.
Not that the details mattered -Miliband had succeeded in making the debate so technical that Cameron’s easiest attack lines weren’t of much use (though he did try, by quoting Murphy on economic credibility – a line that fell flat because the debate wasn’t really about the economy).
The Labour leader used another tactic to take the heat out of the session: splitting his questions, and using his last two to ask about the Union – a subject on which all three main UK parties agree. This had the downside of allowing Cameron to look statesmanlike (lines like “Let’s have the debate and let’s keep our country together” sounded particularly good), but it also ensured he was once more unable to use his arsenal against Miliband.
So the first session after the Christmas break lacked some of the intensity of last year’s exchanges. The problem for Miliband is that if all he can do is take heat out of the battle rather than taking the attack to the prime minister, he won’t be able to make much use out of PMQs at all.