As the election approaches and the pressure increases, David Cameron gains in force and confidence and Ed Miliband wilts. At the last session of Prime Minister’s Questions before September, it was important that the leader of the opposition should send his MPs away with hope in their beach bags. Instead, he sent each of them off with that little rain cloud from Mario Kart, which will follow them round for at least half of the next lap.
Miliband started well enough, with a mildly pleasing joke about bipartisanship, saying he was always ready to support the Government if the Prime Minister did something with which Labour agreed, such as demoting Michael Gove. But that was the best of it, I’m afraid. The rest of the traffic was all Cameron’s way.
It was extraordinary, the Prime Minister said, that Miliband would do “anything not to talk about the economic recovery”.
Thus goaded, Miliband said: “This recovery does not benefit most working people, who are working harder for longer for less. There are seven million people in working families who are paid so little that they are in poverty. Does he think that the economy is working for them?” All most earnest, and it is what Labour supporters want to believe, but it is not supported by facts. Poverty has fallen slightly under the coalition – if only because the median income against which it is measured has fallen.
Miliband was armed with emotion, while Cameron came back with facts. “Long-term youth unemployment is now lower than when this Government came to office.”
Miliband’s next question was a disaster. He started: “He’s in his fifth year as Prime Minister …” The rest was drowned in delighted Conservative cheers.
As we saw with Brazil the other day, once a leaderless team starts to lose, sometimes you can almost see the life-force leaving their bodies. Tory MPs could see it, and started heckling, “Weak”. It is not the most sophisticated sledging, but it provoked Miliband: “They’re shouting, 'Weak.' I will tell them what is weak: saying a month ago from that despatch box that he is happy with his team and then sacking part of his team.”
That is not going to make my collection of Top 10 Great Political Ripostes. Whereas Cameron’s response might well make the Top 40. “I’m happy with my team,” he said. “I’m pretty happy with his team too.”
Then he read out a quotation from Harriet Harman that no one had noticed at the time – mainly because it didn’t mean what Cameron claimed it meant. As a single sentence, “I think people on middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes,” looks like a hidden plot to raise taxes on the Target Group Formerly Known As the Squeezed Middle. Read with the rest of the paragraph, however, it was clear that she meant only that it was right that people on middle incomes should pay more in tax than those on lower incomes.
But Cameron’s misrepresentation served the moment and ensured that Miliband’s humiliation was complete.
The Labour leader already had that faraway look in his eye. He is dreaming of spending the rest of the summer in a friend’s house in the south of France, working on his conference speech. Politics is closing down, and Labour morale with it.