Rarely have the Conservative benches cheered David Cameron as loudly as they did today. As the PM declared, ahead of tomorrow's local elections, "Don't let Labour do to your council what they did to the country," his MPs cried: "More! More!" It was further evidence that Cameron's stock, largely thanks to his robust interventions in the AV debate, has risen in recent weeks.
Today's bout saw Ed Miliband return to to the theme of "broken promises" – his new attack of line of choice. On police cuts, he highlighted Cameron's past pledge that any minister who proposed front-line reductions would be "sent straight back to their department to go away and think again".
Yet 2,100 officers with more than 30 years' experience are now being forced to retire. One of them, Martin Heard, was humiliatingly asked to return as an unpaid volunteer. As on previous occasions, Cameron simply passed the buck and said that police numbers would not fall if local forces made greater efficiency savings.
On tuition fees, Miliband accused the coalition of a trio of broken promises:
- The (Lib Dem) pledge that tuition fees would not rise.
- The pledge that universities would only charge £9,000 in "exceptional circumstances".
- The pledge that Office for Fair Access (OFFA) would cut excessive fees.
In response, Cameron pointed out that the last Labour government broke its pledge not to introduce top-up fees (true enough, but two wrongs . . .) and that degrees had always cost £9,000. The only difference, he said, was that the taxpayer, not the student, picked up the tab.
In the past, Cameron has simply argued that the deficit made higher fees unavoidable; this more ideological defence will have cheered his backbenchers. But the PM still won't drop the false claim that the OFFA has the power to limit fees. As Miliband pointed out, David Barrett, the assistant director of the OFFA, has admitted: "We are not a fee-pricing regulator, that is not our role."
Politically speaking, Miliband's decision to highlight the coalition's "broken promises" is a smart one. Voters might be divided on the cuts, but both the left and the right will nod in agreement when he accuses the coalition of misleading the public. The Labour leader also made an early bid to exploit the coalition's growing internal strife. The two parties, he said, had gone from "working together in the national interest" to "threatening to sue each other in their own interests".
As every psephologist knows, voters never warm to a divided government.
But the most notable thing about today's PMQs was how utterly miserable Nick Clegg looked. His nodding-dog routine has been replaced by a permanent frown. As Cameron reeled off a list of the coalition's achievements, Clegg remained impassive. But whether this is a tactical ruse or further evidence of genuine discontent remains to be seen.