The session began with the usual blend of opportunism and hypocrisy. Miliband demanded to know why economic growth has flat-lined in the last six months. Cameron lighted on a more favourable set of figures – the last quarter’s upsurge – and invited the Labour leader to rejoice in the recent growth spurt. He accused Miliband of ‘talking the economy down’ and Miliband duly countered by blaming Cameron’s ‘austerity rhetoric’ for destroying consumer confidence.
Turning to the NHS, Miliband adopted the mild-assassin mode that has often served him well. Why, he asked quietly, have 98.7 per cent of nurses registered their lack of confidence in the government’s reforms. Cameron faltered here. ‘When you make changes in public services,’ he improvised, ‘it is a challenge to take people with you.’ Labour members laughed their heads off. Miliband: ‘Dearie me, that wasn’t a very good answer was it?’ More gleeful laughter. Miliband has never patronised the PM quite so blatantly as this. It’s the tone of the governess scolding a promising pupil who has started to slack. And it’s effective too, up to a point. It gives political point-scoring a certain immediacy and emotional weight. But it seems a bit girly as well. A bit infantile.
Cameron, now rather riled, had an excellent weapon up his sleeve. A half-forgotten Labour MP, Howard Stoat, who lost his seat last May now practises as a country doctor. And he loves Cameron’s reforms. So the PM was determined to take the initiative and clobber Miliband with Stoat’s eulogy. Then came the ‘take-home’ moment. Labour’s rowdy heckling seemed to get under the PM’s skin and he suddenly blurted out. ‘Calm down, dear,’ at an unknown Labour MP. Instant uproar on the opposition benches. Ed Balls started waving angrily towards Angela Eagle and Yvette Cooper and gesturing at Cameron as if to accuse him of misogynistic discourtesy. To make it worse Cameron repeated the ‘calm down’ line more than once.
Only slo-mo video replays will reveal the real target of Cameron’s jibe. At the time I assumed it was either the ever-excitable Balls or his sulky commander-in-chief. Was it Yvette Cooper? Cameron has more sense than to lob a sexist quip at an Oxford contemporary who still dresses like a rad-fem warrior-ette from the 1980s (boring hair, scowl, no make-up, no cleavage). As for Angela Eagle there isn’t a man in the country who’d dare call her ‘dear’. The rowdiness continued as Labour’s front benches demanded a withdrawal from Cameron. He refused. At this point TV pictures showed Miliband laughing openly at the fuss-about-nothing. And my note has Cameron saying directly to him, ‘I’m not going to apologise because you do need to calm down.’ That’s my guess. ‘Calm down dear’ was aimed at the Labour leader. A fitting line too. As he’d just shown, he thinks that playing Westminster’s old maid will do him good.