The need to intervene in markets and to set the rules of the game is becoming the defining theme of Ed Miliband's leadership. Both of his interventions at today's PMQs (he split his questions), on rental policy and on Pfizer's bid for AstraZeneca, reflected his belief in the power of government to shape the economy in the public interest.
Miliband started by repeating the trick that worked so well for him over his energy price freeze: quoting an outlandish Tory attack on one of his policies in an attempt to portray David Cameron as the real ideologue in this debate: "How long will it take the prime minister to make the inevitable journey from saying they [his housing proposals] are 'Venezuelan-style rent controls' to saying they are 'a good idea'?"
Cameron weakened his hand from the start by confessing that he had not had a chance to study the plans, before going on to quote a series of Labour criticisms of "rent controls" (a policy distinct from Miliband's "predictable rents"). But in so doing, he fell into the Labour leader's trap by positioning himself as the defender of a failing market. Miliband responded with a line ready-made for TV: "Why has the Conservative Party given up on the millions of people who are Generation Rent?" In a unfailing sign of weakness, Cameron responded with a stock attack on Unite and Len McCluskey (who support rent controls), declaring of Labour: "Their policies are for rent, their candidates are for lent [sic], and their leaders are for rent."
On Pfizer and AstraZeneca, and Miliband's proposed "public interest test" for foreign takeovers, Cameron resorted to the age-old cry of a PM under pressure, accusing Miliband of "playing politics" (who would do such a thing in parliament?) rather than "backing the national interest". But he also quietly shifted his stance. Having previously described the assurances from AstraZeneca over investment and jobs as "robust", he declared that he was now not "satisfied" and wanted additional "guarantees". How these will be secured remains unclear. The impression, once again, is that Cameron is following, rather than leading.
The line that drew the loudest cheer from the Conservative benches was Cameron's acidic quip that "of course he thinks he’s extremely clever", a reference to Miliband's claim that he has more "intellectual self-confidence" than the PM. The irony is that today's encounter served to entirely validate Miliband's assessment.