Truce ditched. Peace deal scrapped. The parties agreed to revive Punch and Judy at PMQs today.
Ed Miliband opened with bankers’ pay. RBS is seeking to give top traders bonuses of 100 per cent. This requires government approval.
‘Is that acceptable?’ asked Miliband.
Cameron was ready with his greased-piglet routine. He squirmed free by ignoring bonuses and focusing on overall remuneration. Any attempt to hike the total payroll, he said, would be opposed.
Miliband pursued the point and Cameron got all hoity-toity. He said he didn’t need a lecture on banking from the man who ‘gave us the biggest bust anywhere in world with RBS,’ and who ‘now rises up with all the authority of Reverend Flowers.’
Miliband’s long face drooped. Next he fluffed his lines and bungled a statistic about council homes. Cameron pounced on the pratfall.
‘We just had a demonstration of the grasp of maths at the Treasury. No wonder we had banks collapsing.’
Cameron then delivered a catty and rambling review of Labour’s efforts in opposition. Miliband, he said, ‘is having to jump around all over the place.’ Long ago he claimed that deficit reduction wouldn’t work. But it has. He then called for Plan B. Then he stopped calling for Plan B. Most recently he talked about the cost of living crisis but now inflation is plummeting.
Cameron’s delivery was flaccid, his words informal and improvised. This should alarm Labour deeply: the PM mounts a blistering attack on their policies but he doesn’t rehearse it in advance because he can’t be bothered. As Miliband slumped in his seat the Tories were calling for ‘More, More!’
They got it. Cameron found a pretext to attack Ed Balls who now offers proof of the axiom that a wounded soldier is more trouble than a dead one. Miliband’s problem is that he can’t jettison Balls without triggering an assassination plot. And he can’t keep him without offering Cameron a chance to punch a bruise every week, and to carry on punching it. Which Cameron did with gusto. He pretended to welcome ‘the silence of the shadow chancellor’ at PMQs.
‘There’s a big debate on banking today but he wasn’t allowed on the radio,’ jeered Cameron. He accused Miliband of hiding Balls ‘by leaving him on the front bench.’
As the session ended, Miliband’s gloom had spread to the entire shadow cabinet. They sat there like a row of scolded school-children, staring at their shoes, unable to raise even a giggle of defiance.
Heartening for the Tories. But sickening for Labour’s rank and file who are about to embark on the great paper-chase that will lead to the Euro elections in May. Party leafleters face weeks of trudging up and down garden paths, stuffing empty promises through letterboxes and into the jaws of slavering dogs. An army needs a spring in its step, a song in its heart, and the hope of victory in its mind’s eye. Today they had to watch as their chief-of-staff burbled and frowned through a guileless, passionless zero-energy performance.
Miliband’s in a spot. His options are narrowing as the economy strengthens. In truth, his own tactics – vulture capitalism – should have made him retch. He wagered that Tories would ruin the public finances. It was a bad call. He now has the air of a bungling hedgie who shorted the UK and is about to be engulfed by bankruptcy as the markets demand their due. Today he looks exactly like he did last summer: an ex-leader-in-waiting.
Cameron has rarely had such an easy stroll to victory.