Ed Miliband opened in funereal tones and offered ritual homages to the dead of Afghanistan. Then in his modest bank-manager’s manner he pledged to support government reform to sickness benefits. But not, he added ominously, to child benefit cuts. How many families with one stay-home parent would suffer from the forthcoming cuts, he asked. Cameron couldn’t answer with an integer. He gave a percentage. Those who pay the higher tax-rate would be affected. ‘It’s fair that the top fifteen percent should share the costs,’ he said reasonably. ‘Why does he think that’s not the case?’
Ed struck back softly and quickly. ‘I may be new to this game, but I think that I ask the questions. And he should answer them.’ A hit! The Labour benches cheered the confidence and agility of their man. And they sensed weakness in the prime minister. But Miliband failed to follow it up. ‘By my reckoning,’ said Ed airily, ‘there are hundreds of thousands of familes affected.’ But he gave no figure. A fatal vagueness. ‘How many!’ cried the Tories. ‘How many!’ He didn’t know.
Cameron retaliated by presenting the case for fairness explicitly. ‘There are thousands earning one sixth of what the opposition leader earns and, through their taxes, paying for his child benefit.’ Ed wasn’t having this. He shifted the ground and claimed the right to speak up for the better off. ‘I’m not here to defend the rich. I’m here to defend the deputy-head and the senior police officer.’ Before arriving at the house, that’s what he’d intended to say. But something made him pause after ‘I’m not here to defend the rich’ – as Brown once paused after ‘not only did we save the world’ with such dreadful consequences – and the words ‘I’m not here to defend the rich’ hung in the air like the opening bars of the Internationale. If not quite an own-goal this was a setback. Embarassingly it told the house that Ed was raised on Marx’s milk and even now sees society as a property-distrubution mechanism. But he recovered. He unfurled a demotic speech given by Dave at an open meeting during the election campaign. ‘I’m not going to flannel you,’ the prime minister had said. ‘I’m going to give it to you straight.’ (Quoted in the chamber this slangy chitchat sounded horribly bogus.) ‘I like child benefit,’ Cameron had gone on. ‘I wouldn’t means test it. I wouldn’t change it.’ Ed finished the quote with a mild and deadly smile. ‘I agree with the prime minister. Why doesn’t he?’
Cameron had no reply. He ran for cover. He did what every desperate politician does and blamed the other lot for leaving the country in a terrible mess. But he too recovered and made Miliband pay for making rash speeches in an election campaign. Back in July, Ed had said that by the time of the spending review the next Labour leader would need an alternative budgetary plan. ‘That meeting,’ said Cameron, ‘was for Left Foot Forward. Can he put both his left feet forward and tell us what the plan is.’ This merry banter cheered the Tories like a lunchime brandy. Cameron accused Labour of starting the squeeze on ‘the squeezed middle’ and advised Miliband to speak up for the poorest in the country. He ended by branding him a short-term opportunist. ‘It’s not Red Ed. It’s Brown.’
Miliband seized the headlines today. The frog turned into a prince before our eyes. It’s hard to recall a more impressive debut from an opposition leader. His range is excellent. He can be calm, reassuring and authoritative. He can be low-down, lawyerly and cunning. He can disguise his intentions and give his opponent no time to think. He can do jokes which get laughs - (not to be confused with just doing jokes). And he can unleash a magazine-clip of rhetoric at the end of a session to get his backbenchers roaring and cheering. But though he won the headlines he didn’t win the bout.
Cameron was never rattled for a moment as you could tell from his palpable enjoyment of Miliband’s gag about him wishing the BBC strike had succeeded in blacking out the Tory conference. Cameron’s happy guffaws, apparently quite genuine, were a sign of his supreme confidence. His policy’s a shambles. He’s been shown up as an incompetent party manager. He’s being laughed at in the house by a reinvigorated opposition. And he joins in and has a chortle himself. Cameron’s still cruising. For now.