There's nothing the House of Commons likes more than to relive the battles of the past. As Dennis Skinner put it during yesterday's Europe debate, it was "almost a replay" of the great crisis over the Maastricht Treaty nearly 20 years ago. Earlier, Ed Miliband had ominously, if crudely, invoked that heady period by telling David Cameron that he was "weak abroad... weak at home. It is John Major all over again".
But there is a difference. When John Smith's Labour Party opposed the government over Maastricht, they actually had a cause: the Major government's opt-out from the Social Chapter. On this occasion, Cameron's charges during Prime Minister's Question Time of "rank opportunism" and "playing politics" at a party which filed though the division lobby with some of the most extreme Tory Eurosceptics to vote for an amendment tabled by the aptly-named Mark Reckless were incontestable.
True, Labour's Chris Leslie made an elegant job of suggesting otherwise. Citing an impressive list of items that could be cut from the budget – not least a truly awe-inspiring extravagance called the "House of European History Museum" – he managed to make it sound as if Labour really was the "party of the taxpayer" when it came to Europe. But try doing the test of opposites. If Cameron were doing what Labour voted for last night and saying he was determined to come back with a real-terms cut in the EU budget, would they have praised him for his toughness? Or approached the negotiations any differently if they'd been in office?
What's less clear is whether Cameron is also right that the nation will "see through" the Miliband tactic. Or care. These days being told that a politician – of any party – is "opportunistic" is hardly a surprise to set the public's pulses racing.
Miliband and Cameron had earlier quarrelled noisily over which of their views on the economy were represented more accurately in Lord Heseltine's great growth review. It must be satisfying to Tarzan (who would have chewed his own arm off rather than vote with the Reckless cohorts) that he is still so warmly invoked 15 years after losing office. Distressingly, Cameron was asked by the Tory Simon Hart to "rescue" a café called the Owl and the Pussycat at Laugharne, in his South Pembrokeshire constituency, threatened by a 700 per cent rise in business rates. But why call a café in Laugharne after a work by Edward Lear rather than its most famous son, Dylan Thomas? Renaming it the "Rosie Probert and Captain Cat" might earn it a heritage grant. At least it would not go gently into that good night.Reuse content