David Cameron managed to win Prime Minister’s Questions today by shoehorning in a series of smart one-liners about Ed Miliband’s leadership.
It says a lot about how the Prime Minister has managed to recover quite impressively from his defeat over Syria that he has been able to continue his ‘weak’ attack line. On that Thursday night in the Commons when the government lost its vote, it seemed that Cameron was dangerously weakened.
Today he threw out jokes about Miliband having ‘folded faster than a Bournemouth deck chair’, that the Labour leader ‘went to Bournemouth and he completely bottled it’ and that ‘he told us it was going to be Raging Bull, he gave us Chicken Run’. Cheesy, perhaps, but memorable.
Even if Ed Miliband is, as his colleagues hope, playing a long game with the unions of which his TUC speech was an attempt to calm things down rather than a showy confrontation, these jokes from Cameron show what a dangerous distraction the unions issue is for Labour, particularly when the Conservatives are already on a general election war footing.
Cameron also repeated George Osborne’s argument that the Labour had made the wrong calls on all the big economic questions since being in opposition.
By contrast, Ed Miliband didn’t get the memorable lines out. His clearest attack was that David Cameron was a ‘two nation Prime Minister’, which makes sense if you are a student of political history, but might leave normal voters with other preoccupations wondering whether Miliband was talking about Wales or Scotland.
And he scored a good blow on Michael Gove’s comments on food banks (this is the full quote, in case you’re interested: ‘I appreciate that there are families who face considerable pressures. Those pressures are often the result of decisions that they have taken which mean they are not best able to manage their finances. We need to ensure that support is not just financial, and that the right decisions are made.’ – read the full Hansard here) ‘We know what this government thinks about people who go to food banks,’ he said. ‘Because the Children’s Secretary said that people who go to food banks only have themselves to blame.’ When Cameron praised the Education Secretary without repeating or backing his comments, and argued his government didn’t need to take any lectures from Labour on food banks, Miliband returned to the question to hammer it home. ‘The Prime Minister neither defended the Children’s Secretary’s comments, nor distanced himself from them. Let me just tell him – the Children’s Secretary is an absolute disgrace.’ This was a good ‘out-of-touch’ attack, and one that might stick, even if it involved a complete misquoting of Gove’s comments.
One other thing worth noting was the change in dynamic in the Chamber. Labour MPs roared along as Miliband denounced Michel Gove. But they seemed sedated for much of the debate. By contrast, Cameron was able to use questions planted among his backbenchers by the whips to get out some extra attack lines such as the ‘folded faster than a Bournemouth deckchair’ jibe. He certainly still has his enemies in the party, but he is also still enjoying the fervour of a bulk of his backbenchers to go after Labour.