Prime Minister’s Questions: Another game of smokes and daggers

Ed Miliband and others ask rhetorical questions of David Cameron

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What a brilliant game of “smokes and daggers” that was. A phrase minted by Bertie Ahern, the Irish former prime minister, that ought to be used in politics more. Ed Miliband, rising once more to enthusiastic ironic cheers of “More!” from the Conservatives, wanted to know why the Prime Minister was putting off the vote on the European Arrest Warrant. It was because of the Rochester and Strood by-election on 20 November, he said, answering his own question.

The vote will be held before the by-election, said David Cameron. Then he did that annoying Punch-and-Judy thing – yes, there are some of us who remember when he wanted the end of the beach puppet show – of saying that Miliband’s “questions have just collapsed”. Yes, we had all noticed that and were rather enjoying it, but pointing it out just looks like gloating. Like that footballer who broke his back doing a celebratory somersault, it rather takes the shine off a point scored.

Cameron’s decision to hold the vote before the by-election is a small act of defiance – of leadership, almost – in that he knows that Kelly Tolhurst, the Tory candidate, is going to lose. One moment he was throwing everything at the by-election, including an expensive all-postal open primary election to choose the candidate, now his mood is, “Que sera, sera.” The more important thing is that Cameron has decided that the European Arrest Warrant is sensible, and that he is going to be embarrassed by a big Tory rebellion over it whenever the vote is held, so he might as well get it over with and do the right thing.

Miliband ignored the collapse of his question and welcomed the fact that Cameron would be joining him in the lobby voting for the European Arrest Warrant, and said it would be “two parties working together in the national interest – or maybe, given the Prime Minister’s backbenchers, one and a half parties working together in the national interest”, because a lot of Tory backbenchers would vote against it. That might have been quite a wounding line, if Cameron hadn’t so thoroughly pre-empted it.

After that, the exchanges between the two of them descended into the “smokes and daggers” proper – a lot of shouty stock phrases in no particular order. We inherited a mess, said Cameron. He promised tens of thousands, said Miliband. He forgot immigration in his speech. He promised, he has failed.

Through the smoke it was possible to make out some arguments, but they were poor ones. Cameron had promised to get immigration down but cannot control the free movement of workers in the EU, as Nick Boles, his ministerial friend pointed out yesterday (odd that Miliband didn’t quote him). But Miliband cannot control it either, so presumably thinks immigration from the rest of the EU is a good thing – or at the very least a price worth paying for the other benefits of EU membership. So Miliband’s criticism is that Cameron shouldn’t have promised what he couldn’t deliver, whereas what he said, “He has failed,” implies that he should have succeeded.

And through it all, the Prime Minister spoilt his case, which is to try to defend his reasonable and pragmatic pro-EU position, by exaggeration. The decision to allow free movement from new EU countries in 2004, he said, was a “catastrophically bad decision”. No, it wasn’t. It allowed a lot of people to come here legally, many of whom might have come anyway; it helped boost the economy; on balance some of the problems were greater than expected; and anyway Miliband has already said it was a mistake.

Cameron did it again, when Dan Jarvis, who some people think is the next Labour prime minister, asked a question about making work pay. The Prime Minister’s answer glinted like a dagger through the smoke as he explained that Miliband’s plan to raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour was lower than where the rate would end up, if left to the independent Low Pay Commission, “on reasonable expectations” by 2020. “Those geniuses,” he said, pointing at Miliband and Ed Balls, had spent all summer coming up with a plan to “cut the minimum wage”. Again, Cameron won the point. Again, he spoiled it. “What a complete and utter shower.”

What did those words add, except to reflect badly on the person saying them?

It was a relief, therefore, to have a question from someone who knew how it is done. Margaret Beckett, Labour, Lincoln once upon a time, Leader pro tem, Foreign Secretary, serious person, asked the Prime Minister about warnings of a crisis in the NHS in England – “that’s the bit he’s responsible for” – chastised him gently for deflecting questions last week with answers about the NHS in Wales, and said: “Can we have an English answer to an English question?”

More dagger than smoke, that one.

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