He’s been studying the old masters. Long-term followers of PMQs will have recognised William Hague’s favourite battle-plan today. In football it would be called ‘pass-and-go’. You ask a question. Then dismiss the answer as inadequate. Ask a second question. Dismiss the second answer as inadequate. Move to a third question while pointing out, in parenthesis, that your interviewee is making a habit of not giving proper answers. Then ask a fourth and fifth, and by the sixth question you’ve created the impression that a huge backlog of unaddressed queries and unresolved problems has built up. It’s the sort of devious, swift-footed technique a clever prosecutor would use to make an honest witness look unreliable. Miliband gave his tactic a theme. Broken promises.
Cameron played straight into his hands by boasting that the economy was ‘out of the danger zone’. Miliband pounced immediately. ‘That will sound very hollow to those concerned about the 35,000 rise in unemployment’. Cameron countered with encouraging figures on new vacancies but Miliband hit back with a prepared line. ‘He sounds like an innocent by-stander.’ He then moved to the NHS and quoted a prediction from a select committee that the government will fail to meet its election promises on health spending. ‘We all remember his face on the posters,’ jested Miliband. ‘He’s good at the airbrush. He’s good at the broad brush. But not good at the details.’
Cameron recovered by quipping that he felt he was up against Basil Brush. But Miliband moved on and accused the PM of breaking a promise to stop top-down reorganisation within the NHS. ‘Which is exactly what he’s doing.’ When Cameron argued that he wanted to abolish bureaucracy not reshuffle it Miliband was already on the move. To the EMA. ‘The prime minister doesn’t talk to students, except in China,’ Miliband quipped. But the EMA represented poor value, said the PM. Yet again Miliband ignored this and moved to his closing sally. He reeled off a grand catalogue of pledges the government has failed to meet. Each got a hearty peal of ‘Broken!’ from his backbenches. ‘Health spending, NHS restructuring, the EMA, knife crime, child benefit, and the new politics’. Miliband sat down with his side cheering. The Tories were left startled and a little bemused.
Cameron never looked seriously ruffled today, as ever, but his advisers will be alarmed at the resolution and spirit shown by Miliband. This fight isn’t over. Miliband intends to paint a toxic portrait of our high-born Prime Minister. The good toff/bad toff boundary is very fine indeed and Cameron’s tenure of the virtuous half of the diptych is by no means secure.
‘Innocent bystander. Not good on detail. Doesn’t talk to students.’ These tints and colourings are intended to blend in with the larger picture of a detached, cold, arrogant and disdainful Prime Minister, the latest representative of a favourite Labour demon. ‘Same old Tories!’ as Miliband jeered at him today.
Those in the soft south should resist the temptation to dismiss that approach as defunct and irrelevant. ‘Same Old Tories’ plays beautifully in the Labour heartlands. It also flatters the prejudices of fast-moving urban types who like to think of the Conservative party as a life-support unit for milky-eyed grannies and purple colonels. And it appeals powerfully to restive youth by resolving its eternal dilemma: how to conform while appearing to rebel. For now, this may be all Miliband’s got. But he’s going to make the most of it.
The biggest loser this afternoon was the hapless Clegg. He didn’t even get a chance to speak. He was glimpsed briefly twisting in pain and embarrassment when Miliband likened him to the ‘back end of the pantomime cow.’ What a comedown. In May he was the head of the new politics. Now he’s the rear of a farmyard animal. His party really is turning into a rump.