Jim Pickard PMQs: Labour tries to paint a picture of Dickensian Britain

In a Commons packed with more than 600 MPs it was not hard to spot the man of the hour: the former chief whip Andrew Mitchell.

His honour and dignity intact –at least on a relative basis – the Tory MP was stood at the front of the chamber, the overspill area for those unable to find a seat on the green benches.

Hair immaculate, in a blue shirt and pink tie, his arms uncomfortably crossed: there he was, smouldering – the very image of the wronged man.

Rob Wilson, a Tory backbencher, put in the awaited question: would the prime minister make sure no stone would be “left unturned” in finding out whether a police officer had fabricated allegations against a member of cabinet?

The prime minister began, as is the convention, by praising in broadbrush terms the work of the police on the beat.

But David Cameron went on to say that a police officer appeared to have posed as a member of public and sent an email “to blacken the name of a cabinet minister” and so a thorough investigation needed to occur. The independent Police Complaints Commission would supervise the inquiry, and politicians should “allow them to get to the truth,” he said.

This was not a prime minister’s questions overshadowed by the Mitchell affair, otherwise known as “plebgate”, or “gate-gate”.

Instead the half-hour was dominated by Labour attempts to paint the UK 2012 as a grim, Victorian state dominated by food banks, the poor and even “the workhouse”.

It was Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition, who set the tone – after a couple of technical questions about Britain’s withdrawal from Afghanistan (where there are no political points to be scored.)

Was the prime minister concerned, he asked, about a “six-fold increase” in the last few years in people relying on food banks? (This may or may not be a rock-solid statistic.)

Bizarrely, Cameron turned this question around, praising the volunteers providing free grub to the needy as the embodiment of his once-cherished philosophy – “The Big Society”.

“I never thought the Big Society was about feeding hungry children in Britain,” Miliband responded.

Miliband sought to question why the government would give a “tax break for millionaires”, the imminent cut in the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p.

Cameron, visibly angry, responded by pointing out that the rate would still be higher than it had been under the last Labour government, when it was 40p.

But still came more questions from the opposition benches, including one from Rob Flello asking whether the government was “Dickensian”.

Another Labour MP, David Anderson, asked whether with levels of TB and rickets rising, and the growing use of food banks, it was a return to the 1930s.

Not exactly, was the prime minister’s retort: He insisted that council tax had been frozen; that 600,000 private sector jobs had been created this year; that he was tackling the higher cost of living.

And then Ian Lavery, a leftwing firebrand, silenced the house with a question about a constituent who had committed suicide after his disability payments were withdrawn.

The prime minister admitted that this was “tragic”, but said that disability benefits were set to rise in the coming year rather than fall: “Everyone accepts we need a review of disability benefits, some people have been stuck on these benefits year after year after year.”