A fascinating PMQs. Labour staged one of the most carefully orchestrated attacks on David Cameron they’ve ever mounted. It was relentless. Ed Miliband kicked off by asking the PM about the six fold rise in food-bank dependency. Cheekily, Cameron praised Miliband for applauding the volunteer spirit. ‘It’s what I call the Big Society.’
Miliband gave him the ‘withering disbelief’ look which he practises in the mirror. He then revealed that two out of every three teachers ‘know a colleague’ who has given food or cash to famished children. Cameron shrugged this aside and replied that he wanted to do the most for the poorest. And when Miliband produced his favourite complaint about tax breaks for the rich, Cameron quipped that, ‘it wouldn’t be Christmas without the repeats.’
Labour’s backbenches then swung into action. David Anderson claimed that TB and rickets were on the rise and the country was being dragged back to the 1930s. Joan Walley told us that 9 million households were suffering from ‘fuel poverty’ while the wicked government has halved insulation subsidies. Tom Clarke said the same thing but in a Scottish accent which sounded much more convincing. Jack Dromey asked Cameron to meet a delegation of homeless Londoners. Katy Clark predicted that universal credits would put women on the dole. Tom Blenkinsop reminded us that Cameron’s local hunt has been found guilty of breaching the law. Robert Flello called the prime minister ‘Dickensian’ for favouring ‘the workhouse for the many’. And Ian Lavery, with an explosive attack, brandished a farewell note written by a disabled constituent who had killed himself after hearing that his welfare payments would be reduced.
It amounts to a Hans Christian Andersen view of Britain. Apparently, we live in a society where coatless children beg their teachers for sixpences and crusts of bread, and then pick their way home around expiring cadavers, only to find that their consumptive parents are being hauled from their hearthside to work the treadmill at the local tin-mine. Labour have staked more than they need to on this cynical distortion. They calculate that if they can make despondency universal, the grateful electorate will sweep them into power. Today the Conservative backbenches combined to counter the gloom. They told us the economy is recovering, taxes are falling, inflation is being tackled, and a manufacturing boom will shortly see the north-east making more cars than the whole of Italy.
Cameron’s response to Labour’s ambush was revealing. He ignored it. In his breeziest fashion, he trotted out his favourite sound bites about ‘rebalancing the economy’ and the surge in private sector jobs. Long-term this may be wise. He knows that a chunk of the electorate will always regard him as a yobbish parasite who sits in Downing Street laughing his head off when he hears of working mums with smallpox being thrown out of their jobs, and who celebrates the opening of a new food bank by cutting off power to orphanages, sending out eviction notices to deaf-blind centenarians and writing tax-payer-funded cheques to millionaire bankers who hunt illegally at the weekends. Labour is convinced that their caricature of Cameron is a winner. They assume that most voters are chippy miserablists who think wealth is a crime and advantage a dishonour. (Memo to Labour high command: don’t go to too many Labour party meetings.) The fact is that optimism and an upbeat spirit is the natural disposition of most hearts. And elections are about hope, not about taking tranquilisers.
Rank and file Labour members will love the stink the party kicked up today, but Cameron’s refusal to defend himself and to dismantle the distortions might worry them. They think they’ve got their goose stuffed and wrapped. Maybe not.