PMQs review: Cameron flounders

Miliband has so far set the agenda on News International. A visibly flustered Cameron did little to

The accepted wisdom this week has been that the phone hacking crisis has allowed Ed Miliband to find his voice as leader of the opposition, and this was confirmed at today's PMQs.

Miliband was calm and confident, while David Cameron looked increasingly harried and flustered.

Miliband opened by asking whether Rebekah Brooks should resign -- an awkward point for Cameron given his well-documented personal friendship with her. His response was that she was "right to resign" and that this should have been accepted (according to some reports, she offered to resign). A huge positive for Miliband in this matter is that he is relatively "clean" when it comes to social relationships with the Murdoch clan - much more so than his brother, David, who is close to Elisabeth Murdoch and her husband Matthew Freud.

A second significant weak point for Cameron - and one that was raised repeatedly - is "the catastrophic error of judgement" he made in hiring Andy Coulson. Cameron repeated his defence that in this country you are "innocent until proven guilty". He added that he hired Coulson on the basis of assurances that he had not broken the law -- the same assurances made to police and a select committee. "If these assurances turn out not to be true then it's not just that he shouldn't have worked in government, but that he should face the full force of the law."

His discomfort on the issue was evident in his snarky response to Labour MP Rushanara Ali: "As I said before she wrote her question, or had it written..." As ever, Cameron falls back on nastiness when he is floundering.

Cameron's decision not to appear at this afternoon's debate on phone-hacking has also weakened his position. He indicated to Miliband last night that he would reply in person to the Labour leader - which in itself shows how nervous No 10 is that Cameron be left behind on the issue, as it is unusual for a Prime Minister to reply to an opposition day motion.

The fact that he will now not be present for the debate (Sir George Young, the Leader of the House, will respond in his place) gave Miliband some easy shots. "I look forward to debating this with the Leader of the House," he said. Cameron's only response was: "I think we should focus on the substance."

In moving early this weekend to condemn Rupert Murdoch and call for the BSkyB bid to be dropped, Miliband set the agenda, and Cameron knows it. He did little to gain back that lead today.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.