After weeks of increasingly fractious debate between Ed Miliband and David Cameron on the economy, this was the most civilised PMQs in recent memory. Fresh from his recent visit to Afghanistan, the Labour leader asked Cameron a series of statesmanlike questions on the war and the tumultuous events in Cairo.
At times, Miliband’s questions verged on the platitudinous (“Would the Prime Minister like to see an orderly transition to democracy in Egypt?”) but, given the UK’s sordid history of collusion with Hosni Mubarak, they were more pertinent than they appeared.
While public opinion on Afghanistan is increasingly divided, the bipartisan consensus on the issue remains as strong as ever. Miliband and Cameron are in agreement on the timetable for withdrawal and the need for a political settlement in the country, including reaching out to insurgent groups.
As the Labour leader quipped at one point, “I sense, Mr Speaker, that people aren’t used to this kind of PMQs.” To which Cameron replied: “I’m sure he’s right. People would prefer a bunfight, but sometimes it is good to have a serious conversation about issues.”
The background grumblings from Labour MPs suggested that “a bunfight” was exactly what they wanted. Many hoped that Miliband would lead on the IFS warning that the cuts could prove “formidably hard to deliver” and that George Osborne needs a plan B.
But others may hope that this paves the way for more constructive PMQs in the future. If so, they are likely to be disappointed. For the sake of national unity, British leaders often strive to agree on foreign policy and the bipartisan consensus on Afghanistan pre-dates the arrival of both Miliband and Cameron.
After the initial pleasantries, Cameron showed a hint of menace when he damned Ed Balls as a “deficit denier”. Expect to hear a lot of more about that and a lot less about “working together” in the weeks to come.