There were no punches pulled at today’s PMQs. Confronted by a hoarse Ed Miliband (“I have a sore throat but I wouldn’t have missed this meeting with the Prime Minister for the world,” he explained), David Cameron brutally replied: “If he gets a doctor’s appointment, I hope he doesn’t forget it”. But, anticipating this jibe, the Labour leader had prepared a sharp riposte: “He obviously noticed that I lost a couple of paragraphs in my speech. I have noticed that since we last met he has lost a couple of his members of parliament.”
He went on to wisely acknowledge today’s large fall in unemployment, before Cameron could accuse him of avoiding it, but pointed out that real wages are still falling. It’s worth reflecting on how few Tories thought Miliband would still be able to deploy his “cost-of-living” attack in October 2014 (a fact that explains why this has so far been a voteless recovery for them). Cameron gave his now standard reply that it is Labour’s recession that explains why wage growth has been so poor, a line that may not appease those who recall he has been in No.10 for more than four years.
But it is was when Miliband turned to welfare minister Lord Freud’s comments on disabled people and the minimum wage that he really rattled the Prime Minister. After the Labour leader noted that Freud had declared that the disabled may not be worth the “full wage”, and asked him whether they represented the view of the government, Cameron immediately condemned the comments: “No absolutely not, of course disabled people should be paid the minimum wage and the minimum wage is now going up in real terms.” Miliband, however, persisted and demanded the sacking of Freud. In response, an increasingly uneasy Cameron, retorted: “I don’t need lectures from anyone about looking after disabled people … instead of casting aspersions why doesn’t he get back to talking about the economy?” But his personal interest in this issue (owing to his late son) only begs the question of how Freud can continue to serve under him. Gaining momentum, a passionate Miliband ended: “In the dog days of this government the Conservative Party is going back to its worst intincts – unfunded tax cuts, hitting the poorest – the nasty part is back.”
It was a successful ambush of Cameron on what should have been a good day for the PM (given the fall in unemployment and Labour’s internal angst). Freud will now be forced to issue an unambiguous apology, or be sacked; both are uncomfortable outcomes for the Tories. Hoarse in voice, but strong in soul, Miliband managed to restore some faith in his leadership today.