I would like to think that most people know the difference between a company offering a price freeze and the Government imposing a price freeze on an entire industry. But I am sure that they do not, and so I can understand Ed Miliband’s tasteless glee at Prime Minister’s Questions today.
The Labour leader looked utterly delighted with himself, bouncing up and down in his seat with excitement. Did the Prime Minister think, he asked, that SSE, the energy company that offered to freeze customers’ bills, was part of a “communist plot”?
Call me a killjoy but I didn’t understand the question. All the energy companies offer fixed tariffs for a year, usually at higher prices than flexible tariffs. I thought one of them had already offered a freeze beyond the date of the election. If companies in a free economy offering different deals to customers to try to defend market share was Miliband’s proposal in last year’s party conference speech, I missed it.
But it was hard to concentrate on the exchanges between David Cameron and the leader of the opposition today. I was distracted by the conversations going on underneath the main event at the despatch boxes. While the Prime Minister answered Miliband’s first question, telling him that he had “failed to read the small print” of the SSE announcement, Ed Balls was repeatedly suggesting to his leader what he should say in reply. I don’t know what his advice was, but Miliband’s next question bore no marks of his Shadow Chancellor’s intellectual brilliance.
And while Miliband asked it, George Osborne leaned forward in turn to offer his suggestions to Cameron as to how to reply. Again, the effect of this advice was not discernible.
By now Ed Balls had started gesticulating again. Gas and electricity prices had been “cut”, said Cameron. They had gone “up”, Balls gestured, pointing. Caroline Flint, Labour’s energy spokeswoman, copied him. Miliband jiggled with delight.
The main event moved onto the economy generally. Miliband said living standards would be lower at the next election than the last, for the first time since the war. Cameron said of course we were made poorer by the Great Recession which “they” created. Balls changed gesture to the “flat hand descending”, which he unnecessarily translated with a heckle: “Calm down.” Miliband made a terrible bingo-based joke, saying it shouldn’t be “calm down” it should be “eyes down”. This had the advantage for the Prime Minister of making his bingo-based joke sound almost funny by comparison. “The Right Honourable Gentleman sitting opposite enjoys a game of bingo: it’s the only time he gets close to Number 10.”
For the rest of the session, Labour front benchers, taking their cue from their excitable leader, gesticulated, barracked and sledged for all they were worth. Miliband himself, pleased as Punch, engaged in a continuous exchange of taunts with Osborne, as spiteful as Judy, which were frustrating inaudible in the press gallery.
Goodness knows I enjoy a bit of yah-boo as much as they next politics obsessive, but this was spirit-draining, soul-diminishing stuff.