The Chamber vs the Country
I was in the Chamber for what promised to be one of those great House of Commons moments, Ed Miliband’s first Prime Minister’s Questions as Leader of the Opposition. It did not disappoint, as an occasion.
Miliband looked nervous, and spoke in a subdued manner. But he had some good prepared lines, which he delivered with surprisingly good timing and only slightly theatrical touches, thus easily exceeding the low expectations of the benches behind him.
He had a new take on an old gambit: “I may be new to this game”, he said, but it was his job to ask the questions and the Prime Minister’s to answer them. He then deployed one of Tony Blair’s most effective lines, quoting what David Cameron had said during the election campaign and asking whether he agreed with himself.
Moving on to the handling of the announcement of the child benefit cut at Tory conference, he said, “I bet the Prime Minister wishes the BBC blackout had gone ahead.”
David Cameron was distracted and off form, and his pre-prepared sound bite, “it’s not red it’s brown”, was weary stuff. Later he lost concentration so much that he missed Labour MP Jim Cunningham’s question on Disability Living Allowance altogether, because it was so short and to the point, and had to ask for it to be put again.
After Miliband’s six questions, the Labour benches cheered loudly, but not long, more with relief than anything, and there was no doubt that it was a debating-points victory for the new leader.
But I suspect that there is a Chamber versus Country split here. Apparently Miliband looked less assured on television than in the House and in big-picture terms Cameron’s message, that he was taking tough decisions because the public finances were in a mess, is likely to prevail against the anomaly-spotting opposite.
I thought Cameron missed a trick by twice pointing out that Ed Miliband had been “put there by the trade union movement”, when he could have said that he did not enjoy the support of the MPs behind him in Labour’s leadership election. But again there is difference between what works in the Chamber and what works in the country. The trade union jibe sounded partisan and gratuitous in the Chamber, whereas Miliband might have been made more uncomfortable being reminded that his party and MPs voted against him; but in the country it is the union millstone that is going to pull him down, so Cameron was probably wise to try to hang that round his neck.
Towards the end of the session the Chamber vs Country split was demonstrated vividly by the wittiest heckle of recent years. After a Conservative MP asked Cameron a loyalist question about Claire Rayner, who died this week after threatening to come back and “haunt” the Prime Minister if he damaged the NHS, Cameron’s answer was repeatedly interrupted by a ghostly howling from the Labour back bench.
Childish, silly and funny if you were there; utterly baffling on television.Tagged in: ed miliband, pmqs
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