“It’s not a minor policy adjustment, it’s the intellectual collapse of their position.” This was Ed Miliband’s large claim at Prime Minister’s Questions. The Government’s decision to cap the cost of payday loans was not just a U-turn, said Miliband, it was - I paraphrase, drawing on some of his recent interviews - the equivalent of Margaret Thatcher shifting the postwar consensus. Today, Miliband shifted it back. Or forwards. To a place where “exorbitant prices” produce “exorbitant profits” unless the government steps in to control them.
David Cameron fell straight into the Labour leader’s intellectual trap, pointing out that for 13 years Labour did “absolutely nothing about” payday lending. Quite an emphatic rebuttal, to a normal person. But the Prime Minister does not realise the scale of the intellectual collapse that was happening around him. Miliband is striding onto a new centre ground, which lies further to the left than old people such as Cameron and me think. The last Labour government, in which Miliband was such an unhappy and unwilling prisoner - he nearly resigned over the third runway, you know - was part of the Thatcher-Blair consensus of which Cameron is a part.
Actually, the Prime Minister had an answer to that, too, although it was probably accidental. He pointed out that Miliband had not asked a question about payday lending for the past three years, while he has been Prime Minister and Miliband has been liberated from the Blair-Brown correctional facility.
The only person asking questions about payday lending, Cameron was too polite to mention, had been Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow conspicuously unpromoted by Miliband in last month’s reshuffle. Her campaign against what she calls “legal loan sharks” has been so successful that she is almost as well known as the Labour leader and often speculated about as a possible successor of his.
Miliband didn’t want to give Creasy the credit for the Government’s intellectual collapse either. He put it down to an imminent vote in the House of Lords, which the coalition was likely to lose.
Still, it was mildly interesting to hear the Prime Minister say: “It is right to intervene when markets aren’t working and people are being hurt.” And mildly depressing to hear George Mudie, a Labour MP, say that the energy companies make a 77 per cent profit, and to know that profit is such a dirty word that the Prime Minister didn’t even dare point out that this was an absurd exaggeration.
Fair to say my colleagues in the press gallery were deeply unimpressed by today’s celebration of democracy in its highest and most accountable form. No story there, they muttered. No story? The collapse of the Blairo-Thatcher consensus? In front of their very eyes? What bigger story is there?
Fortunately, Stewart Wood, Miliband’s intellectual custodian-general, had the answer. Lord Wood tweeted: “The MP for Rugby asked a question about rugby. Looking forward to future questions from MPs for Bath, Barking, Mole Valley, Redcar and Tooting.”