No knockout, but the Ed corner celebrates a PMQs points victory
His brother chose to stay away, but Miliband surprised Cameron and reassured his own party in his first big test
Thursday 14 October 2010
Labour MPs greeted Ed Miliband respectfully when he entered the bear pit of the Commons yesterday. Thirty-five minutes later, they cheered him to the rafters as he left the chamber after a successful debut at Prime Minister's Question Time.
"I'm glad that's over," the Labour leader confided to one MP, despite his remarkably calm exterior and relaxed, smiling demeanour during the session. Yesterday was an important test for Mr Miliband: early impressions count in politics, and many commentators are itching to brand him a flop.
Before winning over the public, Mr Miliband had another hurdle to clear – he needed to win the confidence of his own MPs, because more of them voted for his elder brother David than for him in Labour's leadership election. That made yesterday's baptism of fire even more testing.
David decided to stay away from the chamber, telling Ed this in advance. He did not want every facial expression recorded by the sketchwriters or cameras, in case they were misconstrued.
In his absence, his brother did well. There was no knockout blow, but nobody disputed that he won a points victory over David Cameron, who has looked a natural at PMQs since becoming Prime Minister.
Afterwards, Labour spin doctors were even congratulated on his debut by their Tory counterparts. More importantly, Miliband aides received several text messages praising his performance from Labour MPs who had wanted his brother to be leader.
Yesterday, the relief on the Labour benches was palpable as the fear that the party may have chosen "the wrong guy" started to lift.
The new Labour leader had a two-hour "prepping" session yesterday morning when he arrived at his Westminster office overlooking the Thames and opposite the London Eye – previous occupant, a Mr D. Cameron. He was fired up by what one ally described as "too many cappuccinos".
As well as the team put together by his aide Polly Billington, others popped in to give him their advice. Harriet Harman passed on some tips from her spell as acting Labour leader, while her adviser Ayesha Hazarika – a stand-up comedienne – offered some one-liners.
Mr Miliband's guiding star is constructive rather than knee-jerk opposition, so he decided to try to show that the Coalition does not have a monopoly on the "new politics". He adopted a deliberately sombre approach on the death of aid worker Linda Norgrove and British troops in Afghanistan, before offering to work together with the Government on welfare reform as well as Afghanistan. Mr Cameron, accustomed to the role of Mr Reasonable himself, appeared wrong-footed.
The Leader of the Opposition is allowed six questions, and Team Miliband plotted a change of gear from consensus to attack mode. But on which issue? The most topical was the proposed rise in university tuition fees. But Mr Miliband knew that Mr Cameron would come armed with a list of quotes exposing Labour's divisions on the issue.
Searching for Mr Cameron's weak point, the Labour leader decided to go hard on the decision to withdraw child benefit from higher rate taxpayers. He described last week's announcement as a "shambles" and, reflecting the political zeitgeist, not "fair".
Mr Miliband wanted to know how many stay-at-home mothers would lose out. When Mr Cameron didn't offer an answer, the Labour leader played a prepared card: "I may be new to this game, but I thought I asked the questions and you answered them."
Awarding the Prime Minister "nought out of two on straight answers", he said: "We should try to change the tone of these exchanges, but he must provide straight answers to straight questions." Later he deployed the best joke of the session, saying the child benefit announcement at the Conservative Party conference had been such a mess that Mr Cameron must have wished that the aborted BBC strike had gone ahead.
The Prime Minister's pre-cooked lines were less effective. Welcoming Mr Miliband to his new perch, he hoped that he would stay there for "many years to come". But it wasn't a new gag. George Osborne, the Chancellor, had used it against Mr Johnson the previous day.
Jubilant Labour MPs toasted their new leader in the Commons bars last night. But old heads knew not to get too carried away. "One session down, only four and a half years until the election," one quipped. They also knew that Mr Cameron would not underestimate his new opponent again.
Ed Miliband's PMQs team
Former BBC political correspondent, was Miliband's special adviser when he was Climate Change Secretary. Co-ordinated the "prepping" operation for PMQs. Not afraid to speak her mind.
Miliband's head of policy. Took lead in writing of his Labour conference speech. Former management consultant and No 10 adviser on health and welfare.
Steve Van Riel
Labour Party's director of policy. Played role of David Cameron in yesterday's preparations – and guessed some of his lines perfectly.
Labour peer and former MP. Veteran of PMQs preparations as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Tony Blair for seven years. Also a former TV producer.
Rising Labour star, 32-year-old lawyer who became MP for Streatham in May. Fast- track appointment as Miliband's PPS last weekend.
Miliband's other PPS. MP for Stirling since 1997 and former Work and Pensions Minister. Backed David Miliband in the Labour leadership election.
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