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11 January 2012

PMQs review: Miliband plays it safe

Labour leader avoided humiliation but should he have gone for a win?

By George Eaton

Owing to what David Cameron rather smugly called Ed Miliband’s “difficult start to the year”, this could have been a humiliating PMQs for the Labour leader. In the event, Miliband played it safe, splitting his questions between train fares and Scotland and avoiding the subject of the economy. Had he led on the latter, Cameron could have quoted Maurice Glasman’s declaration in the New Statesman that Miliband has “no strategy, no narrative and little energy.”

On train fares, Miliband asked why some prices had risen by 11 per cent above inflation when George Osborne had promised that they would only rise by 1 per cent. In response, Cameron insisted that it was the last Labour government that gave train companies that power. An incredulous Miliband then declared that the Prime Minister was “just wrong”; it was Labour that took away that power and the coalition that brought it back. The exchanges continued in this vein, leaving the fact checkers to fight it out. The only political blow Cameron managed to land was when he quoted Jim Murphy’s warning that “there is a difference between populism and popularity.” Miliband will derive some credit if proved right and this is fertile “squeezed middle” territory for the Labour leader.

The exchanges on Scotland were important but rather banal. It was hardly surprising that Cameron agreed with Miliband’s assertion that they must make the case for the “shared benefits of the Union”. Cameron, who rightly said that he was “sad” to be having this debate, sharpened his attack on the SNP, accusing them of debating process rather than substance (although we could have done without his corny quip that the Scottish government wants a “neverendum”).

An incident-free PMQs suited Miliband this week but some in Labour will feel that he should have been bolder and gone for a win. He could, for instance, have ridiculed Cameron’s claim to the theme of “responsible capitalism”. Instead, after one of the worst weeks of his leadership, he focused on damage limitation.

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