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.