There is life in the Labour Party yet. It may not have been a great trick, but it was a trick. They had to get ready for it and everything. By the time we journalists had put on our ties - we male journalists, that is - and taken our place in the press gallery, the Labour front bench seemed more squashed than usual. Yvette Cooper was turned sideways to fit in between Jim Murphy and Caroline Flint. There were three women to Ed Miliband’s left and four to Ed Balls’s right.
The thing about a trick is that you need two things: patter and an element of surprise. The patter was Miliband’s first two earnest questions about the “ongoing floods and storms”. Ongoing, as if they were a series of committee meetings convened by the Almighty to address issues around the moral turpitude of the West Country. The surprise was Labour’s new tactic of either making a lot of noise or making hardly any at all. Switching unpredictably from week to week from Punch’n’Judy to softly spoken bipartisan reasonableness. In the face of that kind of uncertainty, a lesser person than David Cameron might quail. Will they shout at me this week?
Well, yes, they did. Because Labour’s gamble paid off. They thought there might be a single woman on the Government front bench. Usually, there are only one or two. But this week Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, was late and so, when Miliband asked what the Prime Minister was doing to promote women in public life and got a waffly reply, he was able to say, with a sweep of the arm, “A picture tells a thousands words -” As Labour MPs realised with glee that the Great Male Heffalump of the Patriarchy had stumbled into their trap, the noise rose and the Speaker had to intervene. “Look at that all-male front bench,” concluded Miliband, with slightly too much relish.
After that it degenerated. “They didn’t let women into the Bullingdon Club either,” said Miliband. One of his advisers has obviously suggested that he should mention the Bullingdon Club every week. It is cheap class politics, and the focus groups say Miliband is just as posh as Cameron, but it annoys the Prime Minister and cheers up the Labour side.
We had the first woman prime minister, Cameron replied. The Labour Party lets women be interim leader (Margaret Beckett, Harriet Harman), but then replaces them with ineffectual men (that line didn’t quite work, historically). Yeah but no but Margaret Thatcher won elections, unlike him, said Miliband.
It was all pretty silly. Labour might as well trade on its record of women’s representation, but Cameron made a reasonable job of saying how hard he was trying. And, for Miliband, the trick served its purpose, of getting him through Prime Minister’s Questions without having to say what he thought of the London Underground strike.