Shock news at PMQs. Miliband scored a hit. He succeeded in making Cameron look silly. True, he enjoyed his triumph a little too much, but his performance will have cheered his party enormously. For weeks they’ve had to watch their leader bungling at the despatch-box like an octopus trying to make a pancake.
Miliband’s weapon of choice: statistics. It’s hard to use mere mathematics to hurt a politician but Miliband handled his materials with deadly aplomb. He uncovered woeful failures in government programmes. And the revelations weren’t just bad. They were hilariously bad.
He kicked off with a statement from Michael Gove, last May, that ‘work would begin immediately’ on 216 schools. ‘How many have been started?’ asked Miliband. Cameron didn’t know.
In October 2011, he went on, the government promised to bring forward 576 infrastructure projects. ‘How many have been completed?’ Again, Cameron was clueless.
Ah, said Cameron, but you can’t build a nuclear power station overnight. Miliband was waiting for him. Five of the seven finished contracts had been started under Labour. Finally he moved to the government’s guarantee scheme for home-owners which was intended to create 100,000 new freeholders. How many are there?
Cameron was clueless, a third time.
‘Just two thousand,’ said Miliband. ‘At this rate the government won’t reach its target until 2058.’ He finished his ambush with a handy laughter-line supplied by the Nick Clegg. ‘The gap between announcement and delivery is quite significant,’ said Clegg during one of his gaffe-ridden radio shows.
Cameron fought back with slogans supplied by his gag-writers. He derided the shadow chancellor for promising to spend and borrow more. ‘It’s not just at Wimbledon that people are calling for “new balls, please.”’
And he cited a survey revealing that half the population thinks Ed Miliband is a Muppet character. ‘Because he belongs in Sesame Street not Downing Street.’
But it was a query from Charlotte Leslie that prompted the session’s most dramatic moment. She accused Labour of creating a ‘sinister culture of fear and cover-up’ at the NHS. Cameron quoted Baroness Young, former head of the NHS watchdog, who claims that ‘huge government pressure’ led to medical blunders being suppressed for fear that Labour’s reputation might be tarnished. In plain English, lives were sacrificed to protect ministers.
It got worse. Cameron, still quoting Baroness Young, said the pressure had intensified after Andy Burnham became health secretary. Suddenly all eyes were on Labour’s front bench. Andy Burnham’s face was a picture. Specifically, it was a picture of a Tasered choirboy. Cameron stopped in mid-sentence.
‘The honourable gentleman is shaking his head,’ he said. And those around Burnham were doing the same. Their expressions, sombre and disbelieving. But where they showing solidarity with Burnham? Or outrage and revulsion at what they’d just heard. Given what we know of New Labour’s psyche – paranoid, arrogant and ruthless – it all rings horribly true.
The session ended on a cheerier note. Ian Swales highlighted ‘the injustice’ of sixth formers being denied free school meals. And Stephen Mosley reminded the world that MPs suffer no such disadvantage. Indeed, he announced a slap-up party to be held in the Commons today to celebrate ‘national school meals week’.
Cameron tried to sound statesmanlike on the topic of free grub. A balance, he said, must be struck between spending the budget wisely and preventing obesity. In other words, the filthier the food the fewer the fatsos.
But my guess is that the nosh served at today’s school meal launch will be world-class.