Prime Minister’s Questions: Miliband’s MPs have to do his job for him

The Labour leader showed a poor sense of proportion by devoting all his questions to the future of a TV show

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The Independent Online

It has come to something when Labour backbenchers have to do the leader’s job for him. Stella Creasy asked the first question of the Prime Minister: “Which is more important, protecting our armed forces or tax cuts?” It was a good question, as proven by David Cameron’s failure to answer it.

Then Ed Miliband stood up and asked a question about the TV debates. No one really heard what the question was, because as soon as the House realised what it was about the Conservatives jeered and Labour MPs looked like balloonists whose balloon has caught fire. Looking at the Labour benches it was written in all their faces. They thought it was pathetic and unleaderly to ask about political processes. One or two inveterate hecklers among Labour MPs, it is true, enjoy making chicken noises at the Prime Minister, but that only confirms the impression of deep gloom on the Labour side.

Cameron’s position on the debates is weak and reprehensible, but for Miliband to devote all six of his questions to it shows a lack of proportion. The best the Prime Minister could do was to say: “He wants to talk about the future of a television programme; I want to talk about the future of the country.” It wasn’t great but it was enough to get him through the session without looking like the calculating, risk-averse coward that he is. And he has the chutzpah to call Miliband “weak and despicable”.

 

Cameron’s main line of counter-attack was to mix his metaphors, accusing Miliband of wanting to crawl into Downing Street on Alex Salmond’s coattails and in Salmond’s pocket. The Speaker had to hold up proceedings for several minutes while the Prime Minister provided a drawing, sketched in haste by his parliamentary private secretary, showing the former SNP leader’s unlikely attire, with the Leader of the Opposition’s position marked.

As PMQs resumed, with a question from Labour backbencher Gisela Stuart, news filtered through to my mobile that Peter Mandelson had helpfully said it would be wrong for the broadcasters to “empty chair” the Prime Minister. And no, he wasn’t objecting to the use of “empty chair” as a verb, but to the broadcasters’ use of threats to try to intimidate an elected politician. As ever, Lord Mandelson is right. I think the TV debates are a good thing because so many millions of people watched them, but they have to be done by agreement. I think it is wrong in principle for broadcasters, bound by legal obligations of impartiality, to threaten any of the parties. That is, after all, Miliband’s job.

But it is not his whole job, and it was embarrassing for Labour that it was up to Blairites such as Creasy and Stuart to maintain its reputation as the party of national security. Stuart followed up Creasy’s question about defence spending, asking whether the UK owed it to its allies to commit to the Nato target to spend 2 per cent of national income on defence. Caroline Flint, another Blairite, nodded vigorously on the front bench a few places down from her leader, who chatted alternately with Ed Balls and Harriet Harman instead.

Defence spending is a subject that the leader of a serious opposition party that aspires to govern in two months’ time could have asked about at PMQs, but the impression given is that Miliband doesn’t really care about it.

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