Maria Miller’s resignation, coming after David Cameron had insisted for six days that she was safe in her job, meant today’s PMQs was always likely to be one for him to forget – and so it proved. Unable to explain why having done the “right thing”, Miller had now been forced to go, Cameron sought to present Miliband as opportunistic. “Why didn’t he call on her to resign?”, he cried, “he seems to be first leader of the opposition to come to this House and call on someone to resign after they’ve resigned!”
But Miliband, smirking with incredulity as the PM spoke, delivered the perfect riposte: “I’ve heard everything – now it’s my job to fire members of his cabinet!” Things didn’t improve for Cameron as he resorted to accusing Miliband of “playing politics”, the age-old cry of a Prime Minister in trouble. While Cameron unwisely spoke of a “political bandwagon”, Miliband positioned himself on the side of the public, declaring that Cameron “just doesn’t get it” and referring to him as “the last person in the country to realise her position had become untenable”. It was fine knock-about stuff and perfect material for the 10 o’clock news.
Yet while he got the better of the PM in the House, Miliband missed the chance to seize the initiative and make a wider case for reform. As he noted, the Miller affair has “undermined trust not only in his government, but in politics”. If any party benefits from the row, it will likely be UKIP, an outfit without a single MP. But it was Cameron, not Miliband, who raised the prospect of cross-party talks on reforming the system. Had Miliband been bolder, he would have demanded an end to the right of MPs to police their own expenses through the discredited standards committee and the introduction of a right to recall (perhaps noting that one Maria Miller signed a letter in support of the proposal in 2008) for miscreants. By focusing on needling Cameron, he missed the chance to offer answers to the crisis of trust in all parties.