Lloyd Evans

The lesson from today’s PMQs? Unemployment makes Cameron uncomfortable

The lesson from today's PMQs? Unemployment makes Cameron uncomfortable
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What’s the point of Ed Miliband? Does the Opposition leader have any purpose in life other than to provide ritual entertainment for the Tory wrecking crew at PMQs?

Having spent the New Year listening to lethal attacks from his dearest supporters, Mr Miliband has now seen his leadership shrivel to a pair of policy statements which rival each other in desperation and barminess.

The first, outlined by Liam Byrne this morning, is a fantasy tax on banking, ‘to create 100,000 jobs’. The second is Labour’s new position on the government’s austerity programme. This would baffle the dippiest and trippiest resident of Alice in Wonderland. We hate the cuts. We back the cuts. We oppose the cuts. We endorse the cuts. We accept the cuts. We reject the cuts. They’re appalling and divisive but they’re OK by us. So support Labour at the next election and you’ll be able to keep this hateful Tory package. Got that everyone?

Happily Mr Miliband had a stroke of luck today. He was spared the ordeal of submitting his mashed-up plans to parliamentary scrutiny because — oh joy! — the unemployment figures were released moments before the session began. And the figures were great, (for Ed). And dreadful (for Dave.)

Miliband loves joblessness. It speaks to him at a deep level. Able-bodied adults whose best years are being wasted in idleness and futility. He can respond to that emotionally. Don’t ask me why.

Miliband exudes calm, shrewdness and confidence when he takes his seat in the House. There’s something about him. He’s trim, well-scrubbed, nicely brushed and faintly inscrutable. He looks like Action Man’s deputy about to go to the Palace to accept the OBE on his boss’s behalf. But then he has to stand up and ask questions.

And as soon as he assumes the vertical position he’s hit by a barrage of Tory catcalls. ‘Hurray!’ they whoop. ‘Hooraah! Yippeeeee!’ The jeers of ironic welcome go on and on, until a grimace begins to form on Mr Miliband’s mournful face. Then he sighs with fatigue and glances imploringly at the Speaker. But on it goes. The jeering of the backbench banshees. Hurray! Hooraah! Yippeeeee! And finally, when Miliband can bear it no more, a look of to-hell-with-you disdain flickers across his hooded eyes. And finally, as the noise fades, he starts to speak his lines. And his expression morphs into one of exhausted saintliness and relief. It’s a physiological routine that’s repeated every week without fail. And, without fail, the Tories love it. They adore it. For obvious reasons. Pulling a face that says, ‘I want to be somewhere else,’ is not a good look in a chamber you aspire to lead.

Miliband picked out an old Cameron promise today and flung it back in his face. ‘The prime minister said unemployment would fall in each year of this parliament. It rose today for the sixth month in a row.’ The PM admitted that the figures were disappointing. ‘Unemployment,’ he said, ‘is a tragedy for the person becoming unemployed.’ A strange choice of words which emphasised his clear discomfort with the topic. Miliband accused him of allowing youth unemployment to soar by 102 per cent. Cameron denied this and said it had risen by just 7 per cent, ‘but even that is too high.’

There followed a tumultuous and entirely baffling exchange in which both pugilists tried to whack each other’s block off while simultaneously refereeing the bout. Each fighter called the other’s figures into question. Nothing emerged but rising noise levels and falling standards of clarity.

For Miliband, the great thing about joblessness is that he can cut the cake any way he wants and the section always looks bad for Cameron.

Total unemployment: embarrassing. Youth unemployment: shocking. Women’s unemployment: catastrophic. He used all these aspects of the horror-picture today. By cherry-picking the figures, Cameron was able to point to a miniscule drop in the numbers of unemployed youngsters who’ve been on the dole over 12 months. This didn’t bother Miliband. He simply swivelled the platter around and showed us yet another miserable angle. He told us there are 30 people chasing every job in London (which is slightly fewer than are chasing his job in the Labour party).

An easy ride for Miliband today. He looked robust and combative while Cameron seemed uncomfortable slicing and dicing the figures to make them fit his recovery story. As the jobless total continues to soar Cameron will have to raise his game to meet it.

Getting out his a microscope and asking us to gaze at a teeny corner of the graph that happens to flatter his administration isn’t a credible move. Government is about direction. Not distraction.