George Osborne copied Norman Lamont’s 1992 pre-election Budget this month, by stealing Labour policies. In his Budget, Osborne took away the comparison of his spending plans to the 1930s. Now David Cameron repeated the trick at PMQs. Ed Miliband asked him for a straight answer to a straight question: Would he rule out a rise in VAT? Yes, said the Prime Minister.
That has not, of course, won the election for the Conservatives. But it is quite important to undermine Labour MPs’ morale and to send his own troops into battle with their spirits up.
And as theatrical sucker punches go, it was one of the most successful I have seen in the House of Commons. Miliband, who has no lightness of touch, was simply unable to respond. He could have claimed it as a great Labour victory. He could have teased Cameron as the prisoner of tactics born of desperation. But he is incapable of such politics.
Just as Miliband should have welcomed, in his response to the Budget, Osborne’s retreat from deeper cuts and his moving half way towards Labour’s position on spending plans. But he has no lightness of touch.
Many of my colleagues in the press gallery were amazed that Miliband had not rehearsed the possibility that Cameron might rule out a rise in VAT. I think it was worse than that: I think he had, briefly, run through that unlikely possibility. “Say no one will believe him,” one of his advisers had probably said.
“No one will believe him,” said Miliband. But he was saying it from underneath a wall of noise that had toppled on him. And he, and Labour, were speaking from under the rubble of their humiliation for the rest of the session. I have rarely seen Labour faces so glum.
Cameron, on the other hand, was floating on confidence. He tore up convention and devoted two of his answers to asking a question of Miliband – who, to his credit, replied with a vestige of fight, “He’ll have plenty of time to ask questions” – about whether he would rule out a rise in National Insurance contributions.
Even when his briefing misfired and he paid tribute to Michael Connarty, a Labour MP whom he said he was standing down at the election, Cameron came out of it looking good. He corrected himself gracefully and apologised to Connarty.
Cameron even took the risk of giving an honest-ish answer to Hugh Bayley, another Labour MP, who asked a follow-up to the VAT question, asking why anyone should believe the Prime Minister when he said he had “no plans” to raise VAT before the last election.
This time, said Cameron, “in Government we know what needs to be done”.
He ended his 146th appearance at PMQs by painting another of his unlikely word-pictures, of Miliband riding in to Number 10, “a lame duck on the back of Alex Salmond’s coattails”. And his very last answer – which could be his last as Prime Minister in the Commons – was another quite good joke about Richard III, who did in members of his family and plunged the country into chaos.
It is more likely, however, that it was Miliband who was taking part in his last PMQs as one of the principals. (It’ll be Harriet Harman again after the election.) But what a way to go. We often hear complaints about government MPs reading out the whips’ questions. We do not often come across a case of the Leader of the Opposition asking the question that the Tory whips wanted him to.Reuse content