David Cameron had the confidence of a man scenting victory at today’s PMQs. The latest polls, showing the Tories ahead, meant he was in boisterous, remorseless form. Ed Miliband sought to pin him down on his failure to meet his promise to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” a year (of which he once declared: “If we don’t deliver our side of the bargain, kick us out in five years”) and his refusal to commit to the TV debates. But Cameron simply blustered through it at all. Miliband’s arguments were by far the stronger but at no point did the PM appear truly uncomfortable.
On immigration, he declared: “There are two reasons for high migration, one is the growth of our economy and the other is that our benefits system allows people to access that benefits system straight away – I say let’s keep the strong economy and change the benefits system, he wants to keep the benefits system and trash the economy!” As Miliband pressed him on his “no ifs, no buts” promise, Cameron simply listed all the pledges the Tories had met. It was shamelessly evasive but also a reminder of how much easier the better economic news has made these encounters for him.
He was similarly shameless in the case of the TV debates. Challenged by Miliband to commit to them, he simply replied: “We’re having a debate now” (the traditional riposte of every PM until Gordon Brown). Not even he seemed convinced by his later declaration that he wanted them to happen “before the election” (that is, before the start of the short campaign on 30 March). Never have the debates appeared more doomed. As Labour sources briefed after the exchanges: “Behind the scenes Cameron’s team are doing everything they can to scupper the negotiations and sink the debates.”
As so often, Cameron couldn’t resist a jibe at Ed Balls (a man with whom he is peculiarly obsessed) but this time at least he had a half-decent joke prepared. “He told us he was a long, slow burn,” he said in reference to Balls’s bedroom habits. “But I have to say the only thing lying in ashes is Labour’s economic credibility.”
One final point worth noting from today’s session was Cameron’s refusal to rule out again raising tuition fees. Asked by Labour’s Seema Malhotra to do so, he did not even offer a token “no plans” assurance.