James Forsyth

Jokes and jibes follow the ‘gracious speech’

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The Queen’s Speech debate is a unique mix of parliamentary variety show and proper politics. The debate was opened by Nadhim Zahawi — who combined humour with some serious points to good effect — and Malcolm Bruce, who gave a rather worthy speech. Ed Miliband then kicked off the more political part of proceedings.

Miliband, who no longer has a kick-me sign attached to him when he gets up to the despatch box, is clearly still exulting in the local election results. He scored the best hit of the debate when he complimented Zahawi on his speech. Noting that the Tory MP was the co-founder of YouGov, Miliband joked ‘I’ve spent the last 18 months thinking he has a lot to answer for. I suspect after recent events, the Prime Minister has been thinking the same.’ It was a good gag, and one that drew genuine laughs from the coalition front bench. But it also neatly reminded everyone of the change in the political weather: it is now Cameron who is being rained on.

After that came the usual Miliband lines: a jibe at the ‘part-time Chancellor’, the claim that ‘if the Prime Minister really got it, he’d drop his tax cuts for millionaires’ and the accusation that this is a ‘recession made in Downing Street’. None of these charges are particularly new and they are all rather simplistic, to put it politely. But they do illustrate the political ammunition that Miliband has at his disposal these days.

David Cameron was on better Commons form than he has been recently. He has cut out the gratuitous rudeness and had some of that prime ministerial glow about him today, perhaps helped by starting his speech with world affairs. He had one really effective attack on Labour: saying its message on welfare was ‘carry on claiming’. It is a charge that stings because there’s truth to it and it hits Labour where it is most vulnerable.

The end of Cameron’s speech also had the beginnings of an explanation for the whole coalition programme, the need to make Britain more competitive in a world which is becoming more economically competitive by the day. This is a message that combines the emphasis on deficit reduction with a sense that there’s a reward for what the country is going through. He’d do well to develop this theme.