Prime Minister’s Questions: The next election campaign condensed in 10 minutes

The last session of the year was a summary in advance of the next five months

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The Independent Online

Two things I learned from PMQs today. One is that Ed Miliband holds a pen unconventionally. While the Prime Minister was paying his respects to the families of the victims in Pakistan and Australia, the Leader of the Opposition was scribbling on his notes. And holding the pen with his fingers scrunched.

The other is that Miliband cannot do arithmetic. He had a good line, when David Cameron challenged him on whether the government should run a surplus after several years of growth, telling the Prime Minister to be a “little bit patient” because “in four months he’ll get to ask the questions and I’ll answer them”.

But the election is still four months and 21 days away, which is closer to five months than four. Perhaps Miliband is trying, like a child waiting for Christmas, to make it come sooner. There has certainly been a change in morale in the House since the last time the two leaders met, which was the day of the Autumn Statement two weeks ago (last week Cameron was away, so we had Harriet Harman’s joke about Nick Clegg’s uncharacteristic reticence on the subject of women and numbers). 

It was notable today that Conservative MPs were quieter than usual. In part that was because the sombre words about deaths around the world would have made it wrong to greet Miliband with their usual ironic cheers. But the balance of confidence has shifted.

 

Labour knows that the “independent Office for Budget Responsibility, established by the Chancellor to provide independent expert advice”, as Miliband elaborately called it, has given it something to fight on. The comparison of public spending levels as a share of national income to the “1930s” is Labour’s theme for the general election campaign.

As Miliband spoke, we could see Labour’s election billboards – and Facebook graphics – of 1930s destitution designing themselves.

And the Conservative response, which Cameron rehearsed today, is that their plan would take public spending as a share of national income to about the level of the first few years of the Labour government after 1997.

“The difference is we’ll cut the deficit every year; he wants to go back to the 1930s,” said Miliband, later repeating it with the flourish: “That is the election choice.”

It is a weird choice, because the two parts of that sentence are not opposed to each other, exactly. Labour knows the 1930s line is hooey, and that Cameron is right that there is no significant difference between the supposedly damning percentage in 1938 and that in 1999.

But the Prime Minister’s only good moment in the Chamber today was when he brandished Lucy Powell’s advice for Labour candidates on how to deal with hard questions on the doorstep (immigration? move on). “Managing the economy,” said Cameron, quoting the document: “The Conservatives have a 17-point lead.”

That there, in 10 minutes, was the entire general election campaign. Wake me up on 7 May in time to go to the polls.

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