The Sketch: New generation, old ways of sparring

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The Independent Online

MPs standing five deep at the bar of the House, the galleries packed, an intent audience looked down at the Dispatch Box adversaries. We had all sensed the possibility of carnage, I'm sorry to have to report. What sadism lurks in our respectable hearts.

These occasions used to make Tony Blair nervous, so what must Edward Miliband have been feeling on his first time out in front of a hostile audience (the Labour party I mean, obviously)?

In that dense, thrilling atmosphere, one word out of place, a hesitation, a misspeaking, a hiccup, a stammer – and the House falls in on you. But as all agreed, he did well. And not merely because he kept control of his face and failed to start ranting about evil penguins. No, his colleagues cheered him in and applauded him out – maybe they'd got the right Miliband after all (which may or may not be the same thing as the right leader).

The Prime Minister, as easy as ever, nodded at him across the table in the last minutes before PMQs began, and mouthed a few words of... what was it? Encouragement? Edward acknowledged the moment with a smile of his own. It's a new world, isn't it?

Or not entirely new. Old ways have something to recommend them, even to the new generation. So he began his career as leader with a consensual first question and offered support on matters of agreement (as Michael Howard did), suggested the "tone" of the proceedings should be changed, and even said it was his job to ask the questions and the PM's job to answer them – an observation made by every opposition leader since William Hague.

He began quietly in his new tone and built a steady five-question crescendo to a good, old-fashioned climax (which Labour loved) denouncing "a shambles from day one". And rightly so. There is considerable evidence to support that proposition. The double earners on £90,000 still getting the benefit, the woeful way the policy was announced and defended, and the way it reaches down to people "on £33,000 after tax".

But Cameron's two arguments sustained him. "I don't think it's fair for the poorest constituents in the Rt Hon gent's constituency to contribute to his child benefit." A good, progressive sort of thing to say – people say they like things to be progressive.

And second, about this "squeezed middle" of people earning £33,000 after tax. "Who squeezed them? Who doubled council tax and put up tax 122 times?" Not to mention pensions, petrol, marriages and mortgages (although actually, he mentioned them as well).

It was, Cameron declared "a completely transparent political strategy" and reminiscent of the endlessly ulterior motives of Gordon Brown. A perfectly good finale to an exciting draw.

One thing, Edward's face. You have to go back to it. It does have a marvellous collection of darkness in it. That may very well come in handy, and sooner than we think.