I wondered how Ed Miliband would manage to make a mess of Prime Minister’s Questions, after David Cameron hung on to an unpopular Cabinet minister for six days and finally let her go. Actually, it was a harder job than it looked. Maria Miller had gone. The boil had been lanced. The rage of the people against politicians had nowhere to go, and Miliband could not be its channeller.
Indeed, it was trickier even than that, because, as someone briefing the Prime Minister had noticed, Miliband had refused to call for Miller’s resignation the day before. “I'm not calling for that today,” he had said. Perhaps he had been intending to call for it at PMQs, in which case that will teach him to put off until tomorrow what he could do today.
The leader of the opposition was left, therefore, with the “ error of judgement” line, which is sure sign of a losing argument. But I have to say he did it well. He asked a short, measured first question. He is good at first questions. Noting the “deep concern and anger of the public”, he asked about the events of the past few days: “What lesson does he learn from his conduct?”
Cameron answered well. He is good at first answers. He too, said that people were very upset about MPs’ expenses, and thereafter my notes go blank.
Then we got on to the “error of judgement” and Cameron pointing out that Miliband had failed to call for Miller’s resignation. Miliband’s response was a quick and incredulous: “It’s my job to fire members of his Cabinet, is it?” Then, praise be, he had some words. He used the English language as she is supposed to be used. After a slurry of cliché and demotic - “this is about him”; ”He just doesn't geddit“ - he came to what a student of rhetoric would recognise as a two-part contrast: “He promised to be an apostle for better standards, but now he is an apologist for unacceptable behaviour.”
I wonder who wrote that one. I would guess Douglas Alexander. But the point is that he delivered it well. It was the tiniest hint, one of the few that has ever been spotted, of statesmanlike quality. There was even a slightly larger smudge of an argument. There is a gap between Cameron’s Tony Blair “purer than pure” moment, when he talked passionately in opposition about cleaning up politics so that it would satisfy the “court of public opinion” (hollow laughter), and the inevitable pragmatism of government.
It wasn’t enough to win the argument, however. Cameron carried that easily. He offered to discuss further reforms of the expenses system, after pointing out that Miller had fallen foul of the system before the system before the new, improved, reformed system. He defended the honour of the House - “this is a good and honest parliament with good and hardworking people in it”. Thus showing true leadership: taking on the prejudices of the mob outside the gate in such a way as to earn the gratitude of those within and around him. The 2010 intake cheered especially loudly, I suspect. They are the ones who were elected after the expenses scandal and who really resent being “tarnished with the same brush”, as the Member for Malaprop South put it yesterday. It was the absence of support among the 2010 intake that really did for Miller.
Cameron had the advantage of being right. He accused Miliband of “playing politics” with the question. They all know that there is no party-political benefit to be gained from the expenses question.
Miliband told the Prime Minister that “members of this country” - he corrected it to “members of the public” a sentence or two later - were “appalled by his conduct”. He was the last person in the country to realise that Miller had to go, said the person who had refused to call for her to resign 24 hours earlier.
And Cameron was right too in his response. He said that to “fire someone at the first sign of trouble is not leadership, it is weakness”.
It was a perfect illustration of the priceless description of Miliband by Bill Bailey, the comedian, which was reported by the Times diary this morning: “He is like a plastic bag caught in a tree. No one knows how he got up there and no one can be bothered to get him down.”