Even when it is boring, Prime Minister’s Questions is interesting. The instant consensus was that this session was the usual dispiriting insult to the intelligence. I am not so sure. I rather enjoy the silly games playing. Ed Miliband, for example, finally responded to the ironic cheers with which Conservative MPs greet him every time he rises to ask his first question. “Let’s see if they’re still cheering on Friday,” he said, knowing, as they do, that the Tory candidate will lose in the Rochester by-election tomorrow.
David Cameron responded in kind: “The people behind me will still be cheering him on Friday.” Although it is almost a confession of weakness to acknowledge that his greatest strength at the general election next year is the poor opinion people have of the Labour leader.
And I admired Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat who fails to conceal his leadership ambitions even less well than Danny Alexander, who stood to ask the next question after Miliband had asked his six. As usual, the Tory benches had erupted in ironic cheers of, “More, more!”
“You’re very kind,” said Farron.
As for the substance of the exchanges, they were a re-run of ITV’s The Agenda on Monday night, with the Prime Minister playing the part of Myleene Klass. She is, I believe, your honour, a popular singer and former model, and she was widely believed to have got the better of Miliband on the subject of the mansion tax.
I had the curious sensation watching both The Agenda and PMQs of agreeing with Miliband but thinking he didn’t make his case very well. The mansion tax is reasonable policy, because council tax is the same on all houses in the highest band, H, which includes all houses worth more than about £2m now (band H is houses worth more than £320,000 in 1991). But it is rather symbolic, because there aren’t that many houses worth a great deal more than £2m, and there is something not quite right about the enthusiasm with which Miliband pursues the “taking from the rich” part of his Robin Hood politics.
On The Agenda, he was pointlessly aggressive towards Sir Christopher Meyer, possibly because he knew he didn’t dare be rude to Klass. Admittedly, Meyer, a former ambassador to Washington, threatened to sue a future Labour government on the grounds that the mansion tax would breach the European Convention on Human Rights, but provocation is no excuse. Miliband seemed to think the trash-talking, “Bring it on”, was the right note to strike.
Just as, in PMQs this afternoon, Miliband responded to Tory jeers when he said, “Now let’s talk about the mansion tax”, by saying, “Yeah – yeah – yeah”, as if he were egging on a rival football gang for a fight.
I even agree with Miliband about the bedroom tax, which he used as the other half of his two-pronged attack. “Why is he so in favour of the bedroom tax but against the mansion tax?” It is right in principle that public-sector tenants should be subsidised only for the number of rooms that they need, but the policy has thrown up so many hard cases that it is not worth the savings to the taxpayer that it is achieving.
Oddly, the Liberal Democrats have abandoned the bedroom tax, wanting it to be modified, but it continues as Government policy.
That is the sort of thing that no one can ever discuss at PMQs. The Prime Minister can hardly say he needs the savings from the bedroom tax to balance the books, because progress towards balancing the books stalled many months ago and has now been abandoned until after the election.
So all we are left with is the clever one-liners and silly jokes – although I thought Cameron’s was quite good. He said that a recent poll showed that there are more people in Scotland who believe in the Loch Ness monster than in Miliband’s leadership. “The only problem for the Labour Party is: he does actually exist.”
As I say, though, that is an admission on Cameron’s part of weakness rather than strength.
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