For once a session of Prime Minister’s Questions matters. Yesterday’s was even louder than usual and few voters will have noticed what happened. Nonetheless the exchanges between David Cameron and Ed Miliband shine rare light on the political situation and how it is likely to develop in the run up to the general election.
First, they reveal that Miliband is persistently underestimated, not least by his political opponents. A week ago Cameron slaughtered Miliband over Labour’s relationship with Unite and the unions more generally. Again few voters watched or noticed, but those exchanges lifted Tory morale, not an easy thing to do, while plunging some senior Labour figures into gloom and near panic. They also changed the media narrative. For the first time in a long time some pundits predicted victory for the Conservatives at the next election.
Normally when a supposedly weak Leader of the Opposition is in trouble the sense of crisis around him deepens. Think of William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith at moments of gloom. They never found ways onto lighter terrain. Instead the context got darker for them as they sought to wriggle towards some light. In contrast Miliband has wriggled formidably, so much so that he won the argument during yesterday’s joust.
Miliband looked confident as he made his case over party funding. Cameron was evasive about the hedge fund millionaires that donate to his party and unwilling to accept Miliband’s proposal of a cap on donations of £5 000. With a flourish at the end of their exchanges Miliband was able to declare that he led a party of the people compared with Cameron who was funded by millionaires. The two sessions and their contrasts were like a tennis match where the fortunes of the two players change.
Of course Miliband is still playing a very dangerous game with party funding. He could end up splitting his party and losing it lots of money. Another possible outcome is equally dangerous, in which compromises are made and he is depicted as weak. He has little political space. But given the constraints he has responded to a crisis in a way that creates a little more room for him to move than he had a week ago. Politically Miliband and his team have shown they have the strength to fight back in extremely difficult circumstances. They have proposed potentially sweeping changes to the link with the unions without causing, so far, a fatal internal eruption. Equally important he framed his arguments in an accessible way. In his speech on Tuesday he put the case for the reforms not as some dry internal operation, but as part of his ambition to speak for one nation rather than one union.
Cameron arrived in the Commons with little new to say about what Miliband had done. He assumed that a repeat of his performance the week before would do the trick again. Political leaders often underestimate their adversaries, although New Labour figures overestimated theirs. The diaries of Labour Cabinet ministers from the 1970s report many sneering references to Margaret Thatcher and how she was unelectable. Visitors to Cameron and George Osborne hear the same about Miliband.
But Miliband is more experienced and wily than they realise. He might look absurdly young, but he has been close to the top of politics since the early 1990s. He was not exposed to the same level of heat as Ed Balls, but he was there at the summit as two big strategists, Blair and Brown, navigated towards three election victories. Miliband is a very different figure, but he arrives on the equivalent of Wimbledon’s Centre Court with more awareness of crises, setbacks, fleeting highs and the rhythms of politics than most leaders of the opposition.
Not surprisingly therefore he has responded to the Falkirk saga with a degree of agility, not only making proposals on the union link, but on the wider issue of party funding and – in a very New Labour move that targets opponents – by proposing limits on MPs’ outside earnings.
The change in the dynamics over a single week tells us a little more about Cameron too. He is not an especially effective campaigner. A senior official in Number 10 tells me he is a pleasure to work for as Prime Minister, calm, thoughtful and, contrary to mythology, industrious. This may be so, but as a leader seeking to win he lacks the compelling, witty dexterity of the great election victors. Recently he has become more overtly a Tory campaigner, a figure far removed from his early emollient leadership, but a Harold Wilson, Tony Blair or even Margaret Thatcher would have returned to the Commons yesterday with fresh material to outwit a vulnerable opponent. They were ruthless electoral players, shaped and defined by years observing the mistakes and successes of other formidable leaders.
The issue that sparked yesterday’s exchanges should alarm both leaders. Voters are disdainful of politics and will not pay for state funding of parties. The current arrangements are the alternative, ones that generate endless rows about the donors of parties. The rows fuel voters’ disillusionment. There is no way around this until voters choose to contemplate the horrendous alternative to party politics and reflect on who they wish to make decisions other than despised elected politicians.
The next election will be contested in a relatively dark context with voters’ disillusionment as a backdrop, similar to the two contests that took place in 1974. In the run- up expect more contrasting highs and lows for Cameron and Miliband. Unlike the 1980s and 1990s neither leader will have the space to dominate overwhelmingly. Of the two, it is Miliband, close to New Labour’s formidably strained top table, who has had most experience of wildly oscillating fortunes and about what to do when in a tight corner. He showed yesterday how valuable such experience is.