Miliband is getting the measure of PMQs. Not with respect to Cameron. With respect to himself. He’s learned that his strongest register — sanctimony — will always ring hollow unless it’s attached to a powerful cause. And his gags don’t work. So he’s ditched his team of funny men and wise-crackers and turned to his political instincts instead. Miliband’s gut worked today.
He began with a question which he knew Cameron couldn’t answer. Why hasn’t the government activated the laws requiring banks to name all employees earning over a million year? The PM answered by not answering. He performed a transparent switcheroo from the particular question to the general topic. ‘We now have the toughest and most transparent financial regime in world,’ he boasted lamely. He added that banks must publish the salaries of their top eight executives.
Miliband pounced. ‘In case he hadn’t heard,’ he said derisively, ‘there are more than eight people earning over a million a year’. The Prime Minister hadn’t suggested any such thing. Not that this mattered. Miliband had scored. ‘Another broken promise’, he said, from what he called Cameron’s ‘cabinet of millionaires’.
The PM’s engines rapidly started to overheat. ‘It was the last Labour government that agreed the RBS bonus pool of £1.3 billion,’ he yelled. And he accused Miliband of ‘hypocrisy’. Up popped the Speaker. ‘Unparliamentary language.’ Cameron withdrew the verboten label immediately. He even managed to turn this slap down into a sneaky goal when Miliband complained that the Chancellor had just jetted off to Davos to lobby for a reduction in top tax-rates.
In answer to the charge, Cameron climbed languidly to his feet and put his nose in the air like a lyric poet searching for the mot juste. What term, he mused, would best describe a politician, ‘who criticises someone who went to Davos when he’s in Davos himself.’ Much hilarity from the Tories. ‘The word Peter Mandelson used [of Miliband] was “struggling”.’
On the NHS, Miliband regained the upper hand with a simple ploy. He invoked a mighty host of doctors, nurses, mid-wives and other experts who all claim the reforms have ‘destabilised and damaged one of this country’s greatest achievements’.
‘I notice,’ sniffed Cameron, ‘that he doesn’t want to raise the welfare cap’. But he was in a sticky corner on the NHS and he proceeded to spill Superglue all around him. He quoted Tony Blair — yes, him! — on the tough business of ramming home reforms in the face of concerted opposition. ‘if you think a change is right, go with it,’ Blair had blathered somewhere or other. ‘The opposition is inevitable, but rarely is it unbeatable.’ God help us. If this gobbet of guff is the best Cameron can muster in favour of the NHS shake-up, he should ditch the reforms pronto.
Quoting Bambi is a colossal blunder. Ever since Blair bounded out of Downing Street in 2007, the British people have been physically allergic to the mad-eyed globe-trotter and his interminable lecture tour. And now we learn that Mr Cameron snuggles up at night with the war-mongering peacemaker’s collected speeches under the covers, and commits big chunks of them to memory. Not a welcome disclosure. And just in case his folly had gone unnoticed, Cameron underlined it in bold. He attacked his guru — ‘Blair knew a thing or two about bonuses’ — even while invoking his authority. A barmy, ill-thought-out plan.
The Tory backbenches finally swung the debate onto Cameron’s favoured ground. David Nuttall, referring to the cap on benefits, asked about Labour’s ‘something for nothing culture’. Cameron proceeded to sock it to the shilly-shallying opposition. ‘Complete silence,’ he said of their refusal to support the cap. ‘Just nod then,’ he invited. ‘Nod? Nod? No. A great big vacuum.’
Nadhim Zahawi raised the same issue and Cameron rehearsed a commonly held view that the cap is too high. Turning again to the hunched and muted Labour ranks, he taunted them. ‘One more go? One little nod? Nothing.’ We’d now seen enough of this little pantomime. But when Priti Patel challenged Labour to support, ‘those on the side of hard-working families’, Cameron sprang to the despatch box again. He hopped. He danced. He crowed. He gloated. ‘Let me give them one more go. No? Absolutely hopeless.’
This created a distasteful vision of Cameron as a shrill, boorish and rather triumphant little ferret who prefers to blood his enemies rather than dismantling their arguments.
He probably thinks he did all right today. But he sounded like Blair and looked like a bully. Not all right.