Restricting the West End shopping opportunities of wealthy Muscovites hardly sounds like the way to prise Crimea away from Vladimir Putin’s forces. But when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Ed Miliband reminded MPs, David Cameron, who was then Opposition leader, declared: “Russia’s elite value their ties to Europe – their shopping and their luxury weekends… Russian armies can’t march into other countries while Russian shoppers carry on marching into Selfridges.”
Unearthing long-forgotten quotes from your opponent is a well-tried Commons technique. But there was a twist. Miliband had recycled it not to embarrass the PM but because he agreed with it! And he invited Cameron to agree in turn that “if we do not see the required action from Russia, we should consider asset freezes and travel restrictions on designated individuals…” Which Cameron did, insisting that “nothing should be off the table”.
This was typical of the Ukraine exchanges, an orgy of cross-party harmony. With Samantha Cameron present in the chamber, it was easy to fantasise that the PM had left home cheerily predicting that his wife and her two chums would soon be able to watch him pulverise Miliband.
Maybe he even tested the line he would use if the Opposition leader raised the unpublished report revealing that immigrants were not actually cutting British jobs on anything like the scale suggested by the Home Secretary: “I’m not going to take lessons from a member of the government which the Rt Hon Gentleman has admitted got it ‘wrong’ on immigration...” or some such.
If so, she was disappointed, though from her impassive expression you couldn’t tell. Miliband gave him little chance to strike, by asking all his questions on Ukraine. Both men are a little tense in this sporadic new approach to PMQs. They speak faster, as though rehearsing lines for a play in which they have been slightly miscast. “I can assure the Prime Minister that … the Government will have our full support.” Or: “I am very grateful for what the Rt Hon Gentleman has said this morning.” You can almost hear them thinking: “Did I really say that?”
Still, Sam Cam saw her man score an easy point over Labour’s Jack Straw, who had complained about “one in eight” of Trans-Pennine trains being transferred to Chiltern Railways “for the greater comfort and convenience of commuters in the south of England”. Except, as Cameron swiftly pointed out, the Blackburn MP actually lives in the Cotswolds and there had been plenty of new investment in “the line that both he and I use”.
So Ukraine dominated. But it was odd – shocking even – that not a single Labour MP asked about the missing immigration report, presumably for fear of seeming “soft” on the subject. After all, back in prosaic old Britain, it was the issue of the day.