It was a question of when not if. Today’s PMQs was always going to turn into a kangaroo inquiry into Andrew Mitchell. The man who said ‘pleb’ was in full view on the front bench but he looked as if he were sitting in the Number One dock at the Old Bailey.
Ed Miliband started by asking the PM about joblessness which – unhappily for Labour – has fallen. He attacked Cameron for failing to tackle long-term youth unemployment and Cameron countered by pointing out that the number of kids on the dole had doubled during Labour’s last two years in power. They tussled for a few moments over the statistics, quite pointlessly. It was like watching a pie-chart trying to smother a Venn diagram.
Miliband manouevred onto the real issue of the day. Mischievously, he quoted Boris Johnson, (‘the prime minister’s new best mate’), who once declared that ‘if people swear at the police they should expect to be arrested.’
The house stirred, sensing trouble. Cameron tried to kill the question by pointing out that Mitchell had ‘apologised properly and the apology has been accepted by the officer concerned.’ Miliband wasn’t having it. ‘Double standards,’ he crowed. ‘A yob ranting at the police in a city centre would be arrested. And rightly so. … So it’s a night in the cells for yobs but a night at Carlton Club for the chief whip!’
Cameron demanded to know why Miliband wasn’t asking him about deficit reduction. Some chance. By now the house was so unsettled that the Speaker had to call for silence. This always doubles the decibel level instantly. And Mitchell sat there, in his charcoal suit, quite immobile, watching his political life draining away. It was hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy. So wan, so abandoned, so helpless. The flaps of his thick grey coiffure seemed to frame his sad, pink face like a wimple. And his sparkless eyes were shadowed with the hues of some unfathomable tragedy. Poor man. He needs a hair-cut, a feed-up and a good cuddle. But Miliband wasn’t offering him any comfort. ‘His position is untenable,’ gloated the Labour leader. ‘He’s toast!’ he added, at top volume, which was rather unnecessary since Mitchell was barely a coffin’s length away from him.
The Tories responded by filling their lungs and shouting even louder at Mr Miliband but he drew strength from their protests and raised his voice above the jungle din. ‘They say I practise class war,’ he declared. ‘And they go around calling people plebs!’
The guilty man watched, and suffered, in silence. He wore the wretched air of a garden gnome whose head has just been used as a latrine by a passing golden eagle.
A jubilant Mr Miliband continued his crowd-pleasing tactic of denying any involvement in class-conflict while merrily bashing every toff in sight. ‘Everyone else loses their job but the Chief Whip keeps his.’
Cameron spotted a blunder here. That soundbite didn’t quite harmonise with the latest figures. He pounced. ‘The Labour leader wrote those questions yesterday,’ said the PM triumphantly, ‘before unemployment fell. Typical! He comes to the house when he’s written down his clever political questions. But he doesn’t know what’s happening in the real economy.’
The bout ended, noisily and unedifyingly, in a points win for Miliband. Cameron would do well to develop the charge that Miliband is merely a vessel for ‘clever political questions.’ And the Labour leader is still bursting with vitality after his conference triumph. He enjoyed himself like never before at the despatch-box. He’s even taking to dancing a little, like Ali, when things go well.
The Pleb-Sayer himself will soon be carried out in a casket. Like today’s session, it’s a question of when not if.