After a succession of defeats to Ed Miliband, today’s PMQs was the strongest David Cameron has enjoyed since the conference season. The email by Labour aide Torsten Bell describing Ed Balls as a “nightmare” and the woes of the Co-operative bank (a Labour backer) meant Miliband arrived at a disadvantage, but Cameron notably raised his game.
Miliband started well by questioning Cameron on the threatened closure of a Sure Start centre in Chipping Norton (which lies in Cameron’s constituency), noting that the PM had even signed a petition against the move – “imagine what he could do if he were prime minister?” Cameron’s failure to keep his pledge to protect Sure Start and to prevent the closure of centres (there are now 579 fewer than before the election) means he is on weak ground on this issue.
But Cameron quickly turned the session in his favour after quipping that Labour’s plan to fund expanded childcare through a bank levy (which, he claimed, they had already pledged to spend on 10 other policies) was “a night out with Reverend Flowers” (a reference to the drug-using former Co-Op chief). Rather than keeping his flow, Miliband hit back with an attack on the Tories’ unsavoury donors (adding, in a coded reference to Andy Coulson: “and that’s just the people I can talk about in this House”), but by choosing to play on Cameron’s turf, he quickly lost control of the exchange. In a neat put-down, the PM quipped that, in the form of the Co-Op scandal, he had “finally found a public inquiry he doesn’t want”. Miliband regained some ground by quoting Nick Boles’s excoriating remarks on the failed modernisation of the Conservative Party, but it was the PM who ended in front. Miliband’s unusual eagerness to resort to insult (Boles’s comments showed Cameron was “a loser”, he said) was evidence of his weakened position.
At that stage, the contest was still finely-balanced but two further events swung it decisively in Cameron’s favour. First, owing to the impressively swift work of his team, Cameron read out the text of a tweet sent mid-session (a PMQs first) by former Labour minister Tony McNulty (who failed to make the shortlist for the Brent Central selection this week), which declared: “Public desperate for PM in waiting who speaks for them – not Leader of Opposition indulging in partisan Westminster Village knockabout.” Then, after joking that Michael Meacher had been taking “mind-altering substances” with Rev. Flowers, he was forced to respond to a point of order from the Labour MP (following cries of outrage on the opposition benches), stating that he was willing to withdraw the remark if it caused offence, but adding that “it’s very important that we can have a little bit of light-hearted banter and a sense of humour”.
In the circumstances, given Miliband’s earlier defeat, it seemed like a rather desperate attempt by Labour to trap Cameron (it was clear that no offence was intended). Meacher’s point of order handed Cameron another chance to rouse the Tory benches and to end the session on a high. Labour would be wise not to hand him such opportunities in the future.