The joy of the new, improved quiet and reasonable format - “it’s Questions to the Prime Minister,” the Speaker reminded us, “not the Punch and Judy show” - is that we vultures in the gallery can pay closer attention to the intricacies of politics. Hand-to-hand politics is like American football (yes, the Super Bowl is in 10 days’ time): long committee meetings interrupted by brutal, brief brawls.
In American football, there is a distinctive crunching noise as the two sides clash, following by a few seconds of action and then the commentators try to explain what happened and why. In the House of Commons: just the same. Today, our job was easier because there wasn’t so much noise.
Ed Miliband managed to keep his voice low and so the session was calmer. I’m sure it was a coincidence, but Michael Dugher, the shadow Cabinet Office minister and Labour noise machine, was not in his usual place in the gangway. Plus, Miliband had to keep it serious for as long as possible so that he could avoid mentioning the economy. So, as some of the keen watchers of the game predicted, he chose the Syria Tactic. Just as keen observers of American football can predict what a team’s first few plays will be, knowing its strengths and anticipating the opponents’ weaknesses.
The Syria Tactic is still risky, because the average British voter is not keen on this country taking people from the refugee camps in Iraq, Jordan, the Lebanon and Turkey and giving them social housing here. But the needs of the Chamber are more important, so Miliband repeated what Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, had said earlier this week. “Resettle a small number of the most vulnerable refugees.” Emphasis on the words “small” and “ vulnerable”.
David Cameron was having none of it, but he had to tread carefully too. Nasty party in check and Nick Clegg by his side. Britain was doing its bit, second biggest aid donor, anyone lucky enough to get here and claim asylum treated according to law.
The Labour front bench was a linear committee. Ed Balls, next to Miliband, leant forward to absorb, scrutinise and process every word from the Prime Minister. He sat back and spoke to Jim Murphy (international development) on his other side, who spoke to Douglas Alexander (foreign), who conferred with Cooper. She agreed and the conclusion was passed the other way back to the leader.
Miliband asked another question. He wasn’t asking about people in refugee camps. The Government was doing a marvellous job with them. He paid tribute to the Prime Minister and to Justine Greening, International Development Secretary. He wanted to know if the Government would participate in this other programme and take a few refugees here.
This being American football, there were various secret signals being sent in from the sidelines. Clegg nodded, very slightly, during Miliband’s question. Balls and Alexander were on the edges of their seat, listening like big cats for clues in the Prime Minister’s words.
“I don’t think there’s a disagreement between us,” Cameron said, determined not to be out-consensused. Other countries are pretending to take in refugees but they’re not really. Words to that effect. Miliband was sickeningly courteous in his third question: “I feel we’re gradually inching forward,” he said, welcoming “the reasonable tone of the Prime Minister”. This was starting to be too much for the Tory backbenches, who were restless.
Balls had started sledging, or taunting, as it’s called in American football, a breach of rules that is penalised heavily. He was gesticulating across the Chamber at Greening, demanding to know if she agreed with Cameron.
Miliband clung to the high moral ground for dear life, scolding Tory MPs. “I don’t think honourable members should groan on this issue,” he said. But he was on his fourth of six questions by now, and he knew he could put it off no longer.
“Today’s welcome fall in unemployment -” he began, but the rest was lost in Tory cheers. Crowd noise is a factor in American football too. If the players can’t hear their instructions well, mistakes creep in.
Miliband did not let it put him off: “Just braying like that doesn’t do anyone any good.” In other words: you’re out-of-touch hoorays; I’m just trying to be reasonable. Balls held his hands in his lap to avoid stray gestures, but couldn’t help himself. When Miliband said average wages had gone down since 2010, he pointed down.
Opposite him, Clegg sat stock still, fingers together.
Considering how good the jobs numbers are, Miliband did well to survive three more questions without being trampled. He pointed out that most voters don’t feel better off (they will, soon enough, but he will worry about that when it happens). He mentioned the Bullingdon Club, the sure sign that he has run out of plays.
Ian Lucas, a Labour MP, kept shouting “Four years late!” but I only know it was him because the usual wall of noise orchestrated by the Labour whips was silent.
Miliband got through the session with his legs unbroken and no obvious signs of concussion. A triumph for the game plan known as “ Bipartisan Reasonableness”.