It all started so calmly. Ed Miliband opened with two statesmanlike questions on air freight security and economic development in Yemen, simply asking the Prime Minister to “update the House”. But this soon degenerated into the most vicious and ill-tempered PMQs since the election.
In what could be his last bout before he takes paternity leave, Miliband targeted the Lib Dems over their U-turn on tuition fees. He eschewed a policy-based critique of the coalition’s proposals (no mention of higher student debt, for instance) in favour of a wide-ranging attack on the government’s “broken promises”.
This was one of the Labour leader’s more effective performances and his pointed assertion that “the Prime Minister used to think that trust mattered” will resonate with the electorate.
In some of the most memorable lines he’s delivered, Miliband declared: “This is a government of broken promises. Broken promises on tuition fees, broken promises on VAT, broken promises on child benefit from the Prime Minister. That’s what they meant by Broken Britain.”
In the time-honoured fashion of prime ministers down the ages, David Cameron responded by accusing his opponent of “opportunism”. Few were impressed by his decison to highlight Miliband’s authorship of Labour’s manifesto (after all, Cameron wrote the 2005 Conservative manifesto), but his riposte on housing benefit left the shadow cabinet blushing.
Quoting from Labour’s 2010 manifesto, he noted the party’s promise “to ensure that we do not subsidise people to live in the private sector on rents that other ordinary working families could not afford”. One sensed that few on the opposition benches had an adequate reply to that.
But it was a below-the-belt punch from Miliband that left Cameron really smarting. The PM struggled to disguise his irritation at Miliband’s decision to raise the appointment of his campaign photographer to a civil service post and failed to rebut the charge that he had wasted taxpayers’ money. He eventually countered with a decent Gordon Brown gag (“We’ll be spending a bit less on mobile telephones in Downing Street”), but the damage had been done.
Miliband had the best of the exchanges, but this foul-tempered encounter was a perfect example of why most of the public can’t stand PMQs. By the end, neither leader could leave the Chamber with much credit.