In his three years as Prime Minister, David Cameron has never looked as helpless as he did at today's PMQs. After John Major's intervention on energy yesterday, he knew that Ed Miliband would arrive well-armed, which made his failure to offer anything resembling a decent riposte all the more surprising.
From his opening question onwards, Miliband appeared in complete control of the debate, turning Cameron's red-baiting to his advantage. After the PM stated that those seeking to intervene in the energy market were living in a "Marxist universe", how, he asked him, did he feel now that "the red peril" had claimed John Major? When Cameron replied that he wasn't surprised that Miliband wanted to criticise a former Conservative prime minister, he gave the Labour leader the opening he needed to point out that Major was the last Tory to win a majority. As Miliband delivered those words, a wounded Cameron could only gaze helplessly at his notes.
As the session went on, the PM flailed around, desperately seeking to prove that the government isn't standing idly by as ever more are forced to choose between heating their home and feeding their family (as Major rather unhelpfully noted yesterday). He vowed that the government would roll back "green regulations and charges", although how the Tories intend to get this policy past the Lib Dems, who have already pledged to block any move in this direction, is unclear. Later on, he announced that there would be a new annual "competition test" to determine whether the energy market is working as it should. But neither of these come close to the retail offering the Tories need if they are to challenge Miliband's price freeze. Green taxes account for a fraction of the average bill and polling shows that 75% of the public don't believe that rising prices are due to them.
It is some measure of the success of Miliband's conference speech that, six weeks on, the Tories still lack an attractive policy response, or even an effective line of attack. In shifting the debate away from the macroeconomy and the deficit and towards living standards, the Labour leader has forced Cameron to fight on his territory, and is savouring his victories. By the end of their exchange, Cameron looked like a beaten boxer desperately waiting for the bell. After rising even before Miliband had finished speaking, he desperately branded John Major "a good man" and the Labour leader a "con man" (a line that earned him a rebuke from John Bercow for unparliamentary language) but it was another insult that came to mind as he spoke. As Blair said of Major in 1997: "weak, weak, weak".