Goodness, he’s enjoying himself. Ed Miliband is brimful of confidence these days and he handles himself like a master juggler at PMQs. He flicks out deft gags and acerbic asides while keeping the central question in the air. He’s having fun. And it’s a pleasure to watch.
Greatly helpful to him is the government’s pledge to deliver at least one major and one minor cock-up every week. Last Wednesday it was Cameron’s improvised announcement that energy companies must give customers the lowest tariff. Today he tried to explain this. ‘There were 400 different energy tariffs last year,’ the PM told the Commons. ‘That’s totally baffling.’
‘The only people baffled,’ said Miliband. ‘were his ministers last week.’ Cameron countered that Miliband had presided over contradictory policies when he served as Gordon Brown’s energy secretary. Miliband was ready for him. He claimed to have cut our bills by £110 when he was in power.
His attack on Cameron culminated in a specifically worded charge. ‘He doesn’t do the detail. He made up the policy. And he got caught out.’ It’s no coincidence that this line also applies to George Osborne’s botched travel arrangements.
Miliband wanted to know when ministers first knew about the flaws in the bidding process for the West Coast franchise. And he included a cutting reference to Justine Greening, sacked from Transport and shunted to a less congenial brief at International Development. ‘She doesn’t even want the job,’ said Miliband. And Cameron offered no substantial response to the question about the West Coast bid. Miliband made merry again.
‘Even he is taking his habit of not answering questions to a new level,’ he crowed.
Then he dished it out to the Chancellor who was caught last week sneaking into a First Class carriage bearing a ticket for the goods wagon.
‘It’s not the ticket that needs an upgrade, it’s the chancellor.’
Osborne, sitting on the front bench, was keen to show his disdain for this prepared jibe but he didn’t know how to. His bloodless cheeks quivered, his small eyes narrowed and his thin, curling lips formed themselves into an amused scowl. For a moment, he looked like Marie Antoinette watching a few bears eating a serf. If he works on this impersonation he’ll be able entertain staff with it at the World Bank when he takes over after 2015.
Miliband is refining his tactics. He’s given up his Songs of Dispraise about the ‘same old Tories’ and their ‘out of touch’ and ‘arrogant’ attitudes. Now he focuses on competence. And, with the government fulfilling its self-imposed quota of one-and-a-half disasters per week, he’ll continue to pin the blame on the PM.
Cameron too has a fresh line. Today he painted Miliband as a defeat-junkie who wants to wake up every morning to more news of economic failure. If recovery arrives, this tactic may prosper.
No PMQs would be complete without Cameron losing his rag. Keen to whip his backbenchers into a righteous frenzy, he began to honk out a list of statistics that are moving in the right direction. ‘Crime down!’ he bellowed. ‘Inflation down! Unemployment, down! Waiting lists down!’ But instead of relishing these figures he allowed his cheeks to flush purple with indignation and excitement. ‘The opposition leader can’t talk about the real issues,’ he thundered, ‘because he’s not up to the job.’
‘Good to see the crimson tide is back,’ said Miliband coolly.
The session ended on a harmonious as note as the three parties came together to gloat over the hallucinations of Alec Salmond. The SNP leader has been caught talking to imaginary lawyers about Scotland’s future within the EU. Like all paranoiacs, he believes he was talking to real human beings and not to figments of his fevered brain. It’ll be easy to find out. Even a fake lawyer can’t submit a real invoice.