Cameron had no difficulty adopting a noble but weary expression and praising his coalition partners for taking ‘courageous decisions’ in ‘difficult’ circumstances. Having made his opponent look pragmatic and statesmanlike, Miliband tried to score points from Cameron’s decision to put his personal photographer on the civil service payroll. ‘Apparently he does a nice line in airbrushing,’ teased Miliband as he set himself up for a satirical routine which had been lovingly polished this morning by his gag-writers in the green-room. ‘You can picture the cabinet photo,’ chortled Labour’s Ronnie Corbett. ‘We’re all in this together. Just a little bit more to the right, Nick.’ Then with a shift of mood, and with his voice modulated to a pious baritone, he implored the PM: ‘Is it really a wise judgement when he’s telling everyone to tighten their belts?’
Cameron reacted with Paxmanesque disbelief. ‘Is this what his leadership has been reduced to?’ He fulminated about the ‘half a billion wasted by the previous government on communications’. The rhetoric was forceful and it came from the heart. Miliband’s attempt to contrast a single government appointment with the hundreds of thousands facing the axe seemed callow and superficial.
Cameron then listed Miliband’s contradictory policies in three key areas. He supports child handouts for the rich. He opposes better universities for the poor. And his tactic on housing benefit is to pillory the reforms he specificially included in the Labour programme he wrote last Easter. Miliband comes across like a lapsed Marxist who can’t read his own manifesto. The disarray of his front bench is prolonging Dave’s happy honeymoon.
Labour’s rearguard fared little better. When Julie Hilling (Bolton W) returned to the issue of Cameron’s ‘vanity photographer,’ he dismissed her with a lesson in democracy. ‘New members can either recite the whips’ handout. Or they can think of a good question.’
So complete was Cameron’s command of the chamber that he even had a kind word for Hazel Blears whose constituency has been hit by a gas-blast. He praised her work with the emergency services and promised all relevant support, and he even forebore to mention that Blears’s famous red quiff has mysteriously turned dark brown. (Perhaps she’s worried Hattie will slip her a canapé laced with mixamatosis).
Cameron was helped, yet again, by his enemies from the extremes. Every week some furious old leftie decides to skip his anger-management class and come to PMQs to raise the issue of global finance. This afternoon it was Ronnie Campbell, a voluble crimson martinet from Blyth Valley, who berated Cameron for throwing 1.4m out of work and ‘picking on hard-working families, not the speculators and banks.’ Perhaps senior Tories bribe these red-faced relics to pose questions about the City because they give our alabaster-cheeked Etonian prime minister a chance to boast of his ‘banking levy’ and strike an attitude as a class-warrior who punches three financiers in the face before breakfast.
Another of Labour’s star Vaudevillians, Lindsay Roy, (member for Glenrothes), suggested that Cameron had deliberately misunderstood the credit crunch. ‘Unfairly,’ said Mr Roy with special emphasis, ‘unfairly, the prime minister blames the challenges facing our country on the previous government…’ The rest of this gag was lost in gales of appreciative mirth from all sides.