Tough times for Ed Miliband. He looked pretty glum at the start of PMQs. Was he wishing that Syria had developed in a different direction? A few weeks of statesmanlike ‘unity and consensus’ – while Assad got his wrists slapped by a volley of Tomahawks – might have suited him better.
Instead he was forced onto the domestic agenda. And it’s turning into quicksand. All his best accusations have been sucked into the mire. He can no longer mention the following: flat-lining, Plan B, the double dip, the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, cutting too fast and too deep. As for his trustiest platitude – ‘a recession made in Downing Street’ – that now sounds as quaint as ‘dial-up’ or ‘Suffragette’.
Is anything left? Food banks. And class war. We heard plenty of both.
But first Miliband made a brave attempt to skewer the PM with a sharpened statistic. He and his team of figure-ferrets have winkled out a shock-horror graph which shows that prices have shot up faster than wages during 38 out of the last 39 months. Yes! 38 from the last 39. Not quite the talk of the bus queues and the bingo halls. But it’s something. Cameron retaliated with maximum force. Exports, up. Employment, up. Business confidence, up. And he dismissed Miliband as a leader who ‘went to Bournemouth and bottled it.’
Labour’s backbenchers hammered the PM from familiar angles. Helen Goodman performed an act of mass-telepathy. She revealed that millions of parents whose children are jobless believe the PM is ‘out of touch.’ Kerry McCarthy rubbed salt into a suppurating wound: she mentioned food banks.
The PM still looks pretty twitchy when asked about electors queuing at soup kitchens like refugees. He repeated his favourite sound-bite that food bank dependency rose tenfold under Labour. (Is there any authority for this whopping spurt?) He added a fresh angle. He blamed New Labour – obsessed with publicity, as always – for suppressing the crisis by preventing Job Centres from referring needy folk to the food outlets. If true, this is a scandal that would make Mao blush. Not only did Labour starve the voters, it even denied them food that was freely available.
Gloria De Piero rose to grudging murmurs from her fellow Labour members. They seem to resent the presence of an MP whose beauty, youth, charisma, intelligence and popularity outstrip theirs so easily. It’s certainly no bed of roses being a fat old grouchy Labour non-entity, and Ms de Piero’s self-evident virtues don’t make matters any better. In future, she might placate her allies by wearing a Roy Hattersley fat suit.
She redeemed herself by asking a query that came straight from Militant’s Official Handbook of Victimisation. Was the PM embarrassed, she asked, to see the poor struggling while City fatcats slurp up juicy bonuses. Cameron sprung a surprise on her. Earlier today Ms de Piero had told Twitter she expected to be called at PMQs. One follower suggested asking, ‘How happy are you that the Labour leader will still be in place at the next election?’
Cameron quoted it and the Tories howled with glee. ‘Why reject that advice,’ he asked, ‘and yet listen to the advice of the shadow chancellor?’
Ms de Piero twinkled gamely back. She seemed to enjoy the joke. This, of course, is quite wrong. The proper response, as she should know, is to fix the PM with a scorpion glare and to mouth obscenities at him which a BBC lip-reader can later interpret for News at Ten.
The two Eds looked stunned. Their ashen, rigid faces were Easter Island grey. Suddenly they were staring across three thousand miles of nothing.