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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: As it is, Ed Miliband’s language fails – another sobering Commons tale


“The press was squared / the middle class was quite prepared.” Hilaire Belloc’s words about another Prime Ministerial hopeful could have been written for Ed Miliband this week. How better to describe his article in the Daily Telegraph, no less, promising to “save the middle class”?

As in Belloc’s Cautionary Tale, however, the route to the top is hardly smooth. Miliband did not, as Lord Lundy was prone to, burst into tears. But it wasn’t his day.

Anywhere else, a fluff like “a quarter of a million — sorry, 250,000 — houses” (the number which would be built if developers weren’t hoarding land to get higher prices) would be ignored. David Cameron who — amid Tory jeers — mocked his opponent’s “grasp of maths” doesn’t actually think Miliband doesn’t know the two figures are the same. But everything here is down to the moment, and the Commons is about as merciful as a bullfighting crowd on speed.

He may have slipped up because Cameron had seemed to get the better of him when he asked about the whacking taxpayer-funded bonuses planned by RBS. This fell flatter than it should, with Cameron accusing him of speaking “with all the authority of the [coke-snorting former Co-op Bank chairman] Rev Flowers”, saying that cash bonuses were being held to £2,000, and that the “overall” pay and bonus bill was coming down.

But while this seemed to dicomfit Miliband, it proved a shameless defence. Unlike the lowlier – call them middle class — employees who get cash bonuses, the real fat cats are paid them in shares. And the “overall” pay bill is dropping because of lost jobs.

Miliband’s error may have been to half-abandon last week’s sober, enquiring approach, inevitably inviting Cameronian aggression. Supposing he’d said: “I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, but could he just explain why the pay bill is going down?” The Cameron answer might have unravelled in real time.

Oddly, it was some of Miliband’s backbenchers who scored with less overtly partisan questions. Siobhan McDonagh surprised Cameron by raising the “bobby tax” –a new £1000 fee for would be recruits to the police, and which, thanks to her it’s hard to see lasting. And Pat McFadden asked, on the enquiry into the – for Sikhs — “open wound” of the 1984 Amritsar massacre, for the full “disclosure of all Government papers” on possible British involvement. As well he might, since Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy “safe pair of hands” Heywood, conducting the enquiry, seems to have taken his time to furnish the Blair-Bush correspondence to the Chilcot enquiry on Iraq.

But it was the Tory Andrew Bridgen who brought us back to the big political story of the week, pointing out that Miliband had once said “What Hollande is doing in France I want to do in Britain.”

Even the Labour leader smiled at this point. So no Lord Lundy he. But maybe he should give last week’s experiment another try.