The problem with Ed Miliband’s decision to adopt a more emollient approach at PMQs is that it only works if David Cameron plays ball. Today’s session showed that he has no intention of doing so. In response to a politely worded question from Miliband on bank bonuses (“We all agree with the general points the prime minister makes about bonuses at RBS”), Cameron declared that he had “all the moral authority of the Reverend Flowers”, bringing any semblance of a “truce” to an end.
The PM had already taken the wind out of Miliband’s sails by announcing that the government would continue to limit cash bonuses at RBS to £2,000 and veto any increase in the overall pay bill. This left open the question of whether it would allow bonuses of up to 200% to be paid (not least because of the thousands of staff RBS has cut, creating the possibility of a per capita increase in pay), but it seemed to catch Miliband off guard and was enough for Cameron to claim a tactical victory.
When Miliband returned to his feet a few minutes later, after splitting his questions, his luck got no better. He noted that there were sites with planning permission where “a quarter of a million homes” could be built, before correcting this to “250,000”. When Cameron rose, he pounced on this tautology with ruthless efficiency, declaring “we just had a demonstration of the grasp of maths at the Treasury”. After that, Miliband never recovered, with Cameron loftily dismissing his questions on landbanking.
But as so often when he is at his most confident, Cameron overreached himself. In response to a question from one Labour backbencher, he boasted that “real wages are rising”. In reality, they remain 1.1% below inflation after falling for every month bar one (April 2013, when bankers deferred their bonuses in order to benefit from the reduction in the 50p rate of tax) since 2010. While Cameron has a better economic story to tell than at any point since the general election, he would be wise to avoid any hint that the living standards crisis is at an end. Anything else just allows Labour to repeat its favourite “out of touch” attack.