Ed Miliband chose not to ask David Cameron about the Leveson report today, which has arrived on the PM’s desk, but not the Labour leader’s.
It would have been tempting for Miliband to try and force Cameron into saying something that would then limit his options for how to respond to the report when he does so tomorrow, but instead he chose the more concrete attack of the government’s failing back-to-work scheme, the Work Programme.
Miliband was on solid ground. The key statistic on the programme is that it has found six months’ worth of work (or three months, if the person is particularly difficult to help) for just 2.3 per cent of those on it. The Labour leader held the killer stat until his second question though, coyly beginning with a request for Cameron to “update the house on its progress”.
Cameron responded with a list of statistics about ways in which the Work Programme has helped people (or has appeared to help them – it is possible these successes would have been achieved without it). But the problem for the PM is that the government had set its own benchmark target to be achieved: for the number of people being helped into sustained employment to be 5.5 per cent in the first year.
The main reason the programme has missed its target by so far is that the economy is much worse than expected and there simply aren’t the jobs around. But Cameron can’t use that as his defence, so instead he carried on quoting less relevant figures and going on the counterattack. To loud cheers from his own side, he said:
Let’s just remember Labour’s poisonous legacy. Youth unemployment up, unemployment among women up, 5m on out of work benefits. That is the legacy we are dealing with and we are getting the country back to work.
But the counterattack looked weak, as Cameron’s subsequent claim that Miliband’s is a “leadership that is drowning”- a line that might have worked a year ago, but was greeted with near-silence on this occasion.
The problem for Miliband is that he gets too tempted to stop his line of argument to taunt the prime minister over his anger levels, or the chancellor for being “part-time”. Used sparingly, and at the right moment, these asides can be highly damaging. But today, for some inexplicable reason, the Labour leader broke off his own punchline to do it:
It is a government that is failing, a prime minister that is failing and the British people… [Cameron throws his folder on the dispatch box]… He just can’t keep his cool when he knows he’s losing the argument!…
This was the line written to get played on TV afterwards, but by giving into the temptation to stop and tease Cameron, Miliband ruined it.