Ed Miliband took the unusual decision to hold a teach-in in the House of Commons today. Realising that his “cost of living crisis” line was useless, he thought he might provide a public service by showing us why. The obvious problem with the “cost of living crisis” theme is that, if the economy starts growing, nobody cares.
When this morning began with the release of new jobs figures showing that the economy is indeed growing, the Leader of the Opposition had a problem. If he mentioned the figures, Conservative MPs would hoot and jeer. And if he didn’t mention the figures, Conservative MPs would hoot and jeer. So he started by referring to “the welcome fall in unemployment”. Conservative MPs hooted and jeered. His first question was to ask if the Prime Minister was worried that so many new jobs were part-time.
This was such a bad question that David Cameron didn’t notice it and answered a different one, saying that the Government had taken hard decisions and we were beginning to see the benefit of them. It wasn’t until Miliband was asking his second question that someone prompted Cameron to look in his Ring-Binder of Useful Facts, so the Prime Minister answered Miliband’s first question when he answered his second. Seventy per cent of the new jobs since the election were full-time, Cameron said. He then repeated answer one and said, “That’s the plan. What’s his?”
At this point, the Leader of the Opposition is supposed to say, “Let me explain how this works: I ask the questions and he answers them; Prime Minister’s Questions means Questions to the Prime Minister, not Questions asked by the Prime Minister.” Or words to that effect. But as Miliband was giving a demonstration of how not to do it, he said that the Government had promised to balance the books and failed; and that it had promised to preserve the nation’s credit rating and failed. Either of those would have been a reasonable question on its own, but then he added that Cameron had once said “he’d be good at Prime Minister” and had failed at that too. But none of those was his actual question. Instead he returned to the “cost of living crisis” - indeed to the COLC “facing families up and down the country” - and asked how much gas and electricity bills had gone up over the past year.
Cameron didn’t answer. Instead he commented on the new hand gesture developed by Ed Balls, sitting next to Miliband. Given that this was a public information session, the Shadow Chancellor helpfully demonstrated what an opposition front-bencher should never do, and showed off the new “pointing down” gesture. This allowed the Prime Minister to quote an anonymous “senior Labour source” in The Sun today who said: “You should not under-estimate how ruthless Ed [Miliband] is. He will not let anyone stand between us and the election - and that includes Ed Balls.” Cameron said the Balls was going to need a new gesture, and waved “bye, bye” at him over the despatch box. Childish. Deadly. “You don’t need it to be Christmas,” Cameron said to Miliband, “to know you’re sitting next to a turkey.” Childish, rubbish joke. Deadly.
Miliband carried on. He had six questions and he was going to use them. So he tried the cost of child care. Cameron said the Government had provided more nursery places. Miliband, brilliantly but irrelevantly, noticed that this didn’t answer the question and so described the Prime Minister’s “turkey of an answer”, thus cleverly drawing more attention to Cameron’s stupid joke about sitting next to a turkey.
Miliband’s last question gave him one final chance to show how it is not done. Something about cutting taxes for the Prime Minister’s Christmas-card list. Even the “tax cut for millionaires” line loses some of its edge when the economy is starting to grow to everyone’s benefit.
John Bercow, the Speaker, brought that part of the seminar to a close by interrupting the next question after Miliband’s last to ask for quiet. “We are have just going to have to keep going for a little bit longer,” he said, referring to his policy of adding injury time to PMQs to make up for noise and interruptions. This was greeted by loud and long Conservative cheers: the longer PMQs goes on, they know, the more they are winning.