Simon Carr: Barking and cringeing on Ed's quest for the leadership secret

Sketch: The words "brotherly love" are to Ed like a dentist's drill on an open tooth.

Another head-to-head in the Commons at the European statement. Ed Miliband came in and had to sit next to Ed Balls at the end of Home Office questions. He'd come in with Mrs Balls. They sat in a sequence that would tempt anyone to metaphor. I am built to resist temptation like that.

Recognising their predicament, they played nicely. Ed Miliband chatted and smiled and you might have thought nothing was wrong. But his forehead was furrowed, he leant out of his circumferenceand he was smiling in a way chimpanzees recognise in their hierarchical inferiors.

Later in the statement he made comments, but Yvette on one side and Harriet on the other didn't react. The fact is, the poor fellow can't command the attention of colleagues sitting next to him, let alone his party.

Leaders have the secret, don't they? The plan, the strategy, the reach and grasp. They are a source of power and their followers organise themselves around him like iron filings in a magnetic field. But from the look of it, Labour MPs have decided that their leader doesn't have the secret.

Maybe it's hopeless, maybe it isn't. He had a couple of moments with a deft, pleasant touch – and a sense of command suddenly materialised around him. His teasing opening remarks about "old friends and new friends" in the Euro debate made people laugh, his offer "we're here to help" worked as well, and towards the end a little device brought a big roar (possibly of relief). "Isn't the truth he wanted to say 'No. No. No'. And he ended up saying, 'No. Maybe. Oh, go on then'." Thigh-slapping, pointing, some barking.

It was about the 3 per cent reduction in the asked-for increase to run the EU. You had to be there.

On the other hand, he had Labour in a collective cringe through the long middle. His forensic approach needed an attentive jury – he lost clarity and the audience went the same way.

He asked what discussions about uncertainty he'd had in the Council (it's not a crowd-pleaser). He wanted assurances that the right balance had been struck between "stability and the need for reform" (ditto). And without his clippable soundbite it would have been a dismal afternoon.

Teasing Cameron is high risk. The PM put a wicked topspin on his return of serve. "Old friends and new friends? Let me put it in langauage the Rt Hon Gent will understand." He encompassed his coalition in a big gesture. "We're one big happy family."

Ed had to laugh but there was more pain than pleasure in his memory of happy families. Then, worse: "It's all brotherly love on this side of the House!" More laughter, much of it unkind.

The words "brotherly love" are to Ed like a dentist's drill on an open tooth. But "har har har", Ed had to go. It's amazing what you have to do in politics to appear normal; it can make freaks.