PMQs today revealed just how dependent Ed Miliband is on Britain’s future performance. The public finances have shaped his entire career. In government, he watched Gordon Brown screw the economy. Then he watched the economy return the compliment. Now he hopes the economy will wreck the Coalition and propel him into Downing Street.
But there’s a snag. The economy has to tank, and to carry on tanking, for Miliband’s Mission Zero to succeed. And today, in defiance of all the soothsayers, the economic news is good. Employment figures are rising. Nearly 30 million Britons are in work. And those tricky youth unemployment totals are moving into sunny territory too. Ed Miliband, the political vulture, will starve without fresh corpses on the savannah.
To turn the happy tidings into sorrow and gloom, he tried tracking back to last week’s Autumn Statement. He wanted to embarrass the PM with the shocking revelation that ‘60 per cent of those hit by the welfare cuts’ are in work. Easy answer for Cameron. Forget 60 percent. Everyone who gets welfare is taking a trim because the government must make ‘the tough and necessary choices’ to clobber the deficit into shape.
The two leaders tussled, as they often do, over conflicting interpretations of the figures. The scariest claim Miliband could offer was that a working family might lose £534 under to the Chancellor’s plans. That’s per year, by the way. A tenner a week. Unwelcome, of course, but it won’t have the grave-diggers emptying buckets of lime onto great piles of plague-hit cadavers. And that’s what Miliband wants.
Ed Balls was his old self today, heckling and shrieking, like a football hooligan in a departure lounge. It’s never clear who Balls is trying to intimidate: the prime minister whom he loathes or the Labour leader whom he merely disparages. Both probably. It’s a sure sign that Miliband is struggling when Balls cranks up the volume on his behalf. Cameron took advantage and referred to Balls’s faltering response to the Autumn Statement last week.
‘Like bullies all over the world, he can dish it out but he can’t take it.’
Miliband sensed an opportunity here. He shook his head and gave the prime minister his special tut-tut look which he seems to think is a vote-winner. (Memo to Miliband: instead of appearing trustworthy and statesmanlike, you have the air of a Spanish torturer looking for an inquisition to join.)
‘The boy from the Bullingdon Club,’ said Miliband in mock disbelief, ‘is lecturing people on bullying?’ Then he added this impetuous aside.
‘Have you wrecked a restaurant recently?’
A risky insult this. His eyes darted nervously, even as he said it. Spur-of-the-moment jibes often explode in the attacker’s face. But he was in luck. His backbenchers took up their leader’s newly-minted motto.
‘Wrecked a restaurant?’ they called as the next three Tories stood to ask a question.
The prime minister took every chance to hammered home his message. The Tories support work. Labour loves welfare. The ill-disciplined opposition heckled him so much that he lost patience and slammed Miliband for ‘not being able to keep his mouth shut for five seconds.’
An ill-tempered session. And it ended with this attack from the Labour leader.
‘They [the Tories] look after people on their Christmas card list. But they hit people they never meet and whose lives they will never understand.’
A strong, well-crafted line but it was delivered in a perfunctory, passionless voice.
Miliband has enjoyed a golden autumn. He inflicted a series of damaging defeats on Cameron. But it’s over now. And his neighbour-from-hell is back in full voice too. That’s even more worrying for him. Because just as he can succeed only if Britain fails, so Balls can rise only if Miliband sinks.