Sometimes when a leader of the opposition has a lot of different attacks to make on a prime minister at PMQs, they try to spread themselves too thinly and end up not hitting home with any of their pre-prepared lines.
Not so today. Ed Miliband was faced with a choice selection of easy pickings with which to attack the prime minister, and blended them together perfectly to leave David Cameron looking red-faced and ineffectual.
The Labour leader began with an uncharacteristically well-delivered joke about the apparent u-turn on minimum alcohol pricing:
Today’s exchanges at PMQs sounded fairly hackneyed and well-worn. Ed Miliband chose to ask about the economy, and the usual argument took place – the Labour leader accused the coalition of stifling growth, the prime minister said it was all Labour’s fault for borrowing too much.
But Miliband did give one revealing answer during the debate. The Labour leader pointed out:
[Cameron] is borrowing £212bn more than he promised.
Two big questions remained after David Cameron’s landmark speech on Britain’s role in Europe this morning: would it do enough to please his eurosceptic backbenchers, and how would Ed Miliband respond?
We got the answer to both at PMQs. We know now that for the moment, Cameron has got his party off his back, and that Labour are not about to promise a referendum of their own.
The atmosphere in the Commons was electric as the leaders took their places. The Tory benches were packed with grinning faces – this looked like being a good day for Cameron, and so it proved. He even got a cheer for starting his first answer by saying:
Douglas Alexander was touring television studios this morning explaining why he thought holding a referendum on Britain’s EU membership was a bad idea. After months of toying with the idea of copying the Tories in promising an in/out referendum in the next parliament, Labour seems to have finally decided that would be a bad idea.
This uncharacteristic decisiveness gave Ed Miliband a platform from which to attack David Cameron in today’s PMQs, and the Labour leader made the most of it. His first question was meant to embarrass the PM and amuse his own party, and it worked:
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”.
Nick Clegg always has a hard time taking over from the prime minister at PMQs. Without the vocal support of hundreds of his own MPs behind him, he can often be left looking helpless at the mercy of Labour barracking.
This week, with contentious negotiations on the European budget looming, should have been even worse. If there’s one thing that backbench Tories hate more than the Lib Dem leader, it is the Lib Dem leader talking about Europe
But Harriet Harman, asking the questions in Ed Miliband’s place, missed that open goal. Instead of asking about the one topic sure to leave him looking exposed and distant from the benches behind him, she asked about the Leveson inquiry, childcare costs and the police.
If Labour wanted evidence of how difficult they will find it to outflank the Tories on Europe, it was there for them today during prime minister’s questions. This afternoon’s debate, during which Tory rebels will vote to push the government into backing a cut in the EU budget, seemed to offer the Labour leader a golden opportunity to embarrass Cameron in front of his own backbenches.
But the ploy failed. As Miliband attacked on why the PM didn’t back a cut in the budget, Cameron hit back, criticising the Labour leader of opportunism:
The whole country will see through what is rank opportunism… Labour gave away half our rebate in one negotiation. Today, they haven’t even put down their own resolution on this issue.
The FT, the Guardian, the Mail and the Independent all agreed this morning; the reshuffle was David Cameron’s turn to the right. In came Chris Grayling, out went Ken Clarke. In came Owen Paterson to Defra, in came Michael Fallon to the business department. One Number 10 official remarked yesterday described Grayling as “a good rightwing appointment”. I don’t think I have ever heard someone so close to Cameron saying anything like that before.
Our analysis on how important a moment this could be can be found here.
The problem is, Labour doesn’t seem to get it (to coin a phrase). Ed Miliband decided instead to attack the prime minister for carrying out a “no change” reshuffle:
The last session of PMQs before recess today felt, in the words of one Twitter wit, like an “end of season clip show”. Both leaders played their greatest hits as they tried to buoy their troops ahead of the long break and remind the wider public of how they view each other.
For Ed Miliband, this was about tying in last night’s rebellion on House of Lords reform with the problems he’s had over the last few months with the Budget and the economy. The linking device wasn’t subtle (“House of Lords reform isn’t his main problem….”), but the attacks were effective, if not new.
We heard about the “tax cut for millionaires” (the end of the 50p top rate of income tax), paid for by a “tax on pensioners” (the end of preferential tax rates for pensioners), and to cap it all of, the “double-dip recession made in Downing Street”.
Today’s session of PMQs was unexpectedly boring. Amid another big banking scandal, with the future of the City at stake, somehow David Cameron and Ed Miliband got bogged down in a tedious discussion of what sort of inquiry there should be into what went on.
The Prime Minister is pursuing a parliamentary inquiry, which he wants to be led by Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the Treasury Select Committee. Miliband wants a full Leveson-style judge-led inquiry.
Miliband obviously thinks he is onto something here, and that by getting ahead of the PM he can do what he did last year, when it looked like he had forced Cameron to set up the Leveson inquiry. And he said as much today:
As Chris Bryant, the Labour MP, reminded his Twitter followers during today’s PMQs:
Blair was right about Hague: good jokes, poor judgement. They are good jokes though.
And there were some excellent jokes from the foreign secretary, who was standing in for the prime minister and DPM today.
First he began by mocking Ed Balls, the man whose carping from the sidelines often winds up David Cameron into a red-faced fury. Hague said to Harriet Harman, who was leading the charge for Labour:
I congratulate her on not having the shadow chancellor sitting next to her, it makes her questions easier to hear. The chancellor is at the G20, I presume the shadow chancellor is off conducting another survey into what people think of him. We could have told him that for free – always better value under the Conservatives.
It was a curiously flat PMQs today, partially because we have heard the stock questions and answers from both party leaders on each of the issues that was raised.
Ed Miliband brought up growth, David Cameron countered with low interest rates. Miliband asked about police cuts, Cameron responded with figures about the proportion of back office staff to frontline officers. Miliband asked about nursing cuts, Cameron mentioned Labour’s refusal to guarantee real-terms rises in health spending at the last election.
But two issues caught the eye: the first is the battle over Francois Hollande. The socialist French prime minister’s election poses a risk for both leaders. Hollande’s rhetoric about growth versus austerity has echoed much of what Ed Balls has been saying in this country.
Therefore if the French economy begins to recover, it gives Cameron the headache of having an apparently viable alternative economic model thriving just across the Channel. If however it fails, with growth stagnating and the bond markets starting to punish France, it will give the prime minister the perfect ammunition with which to attack the Balls plan.