PMQs sketch: Terminator Ed ruins Cameron

Cold and calculating: Ed Miliband is the Terminator.
Cold and calculating: Ed Miliband is the Terminator.

First blood goes to Ed Miliband. It's startling to see Cameron brought so suddenly back to earth.

By Ian Dunt

We haven't seen David Cameron suffer like that for some time. Ed Miliband was cold, clinical and effective. This wasn't quite a demolition, but it was complete deconstruction of the prime minister's argument.

Some would call it passive aggressive, and indeed you can imagine Miliband gets pretty weird when he has a barny with the girlfriend. Personally, I thought he was like Terminator: emotionless, accurate and dangerous. You don't particularly want to have a pint with him, but you do want him taking on the prime minister at the despatch box.

It started with a question about child benefit, the Tories' little trauma of last week. He won't always get a subject this easy, of course, but something about the methodology of his attack suggested he would be able to replicate this performance going forward. Exactly how many single parent families would be affected? Already the Tory backbenches looked uncomfortable.

Cameron evaded desperately. Fifteen per cent of taxpayers are higher earners, he said, in an altogether unsatisfactory attempt to stave off the Labour jeers. The PM attempted to fire back a question but it backfired spectacularly, allowing the Labour leader to make his first well received joke. "I may be new to this game, but I think I ask the questions and he gives the answers," he shot out calmly, moderately, like an uncle gently ribbing his nephew.

Cameron made a lovely attempt to turn the tables, urging Miliband to stop defending the rich - a wonderful and contorted attack that sends political geeks like me to nirvana. Milibands' defence was smart and necessary: "I'm not defending the rich. I'm defending the deputy head teacher." He'll need to repeat that. Once won't be enough. That message needs to hammered in. But he's got the gist of it.

The precision of his figures and his questions held the key to Miliband's success today. He proceeded to tell us exactly what a single earner family just over the threshold would lose. It was met with the kind of silence in the Commons which symbolises success. Then came a protracted quote in which he reminded the House of Cameron's explicit promise not to means-test child benefit. It was more specific than the quotes we'd heard before. The tactic of quoting U-turns is over-used in the Commons, but this was too good an example to miss.

Cameron reverted back to the old 'Labour left us in this mess' angle that his ministers have been adopting for months now. Fair enough. Labour was still doing it after 13 years in power. But here, it was a sign of real trouble. Ed Milibands points were specific and factual. Cameron's vague rhetoric did nothing to blunt them.

"It's nought out of two on straight answers," Miliband pointed out, expressionless. Labour looked like it was having an extra marital affair. The benches behind Miliband rocked delightedly. They were in ecstacy.

The look on George Osborne's face said it all. "Ah. We may have a problem here." Nick Clegg became so exited he almost sat up straight - a rare occurrence these days. Of course, he is the man with the most to lose. Ed Miliband was the disaster scenario for the Liberal Democrats, who are terrified of haemorrhaging the leftie liberal supporters they imported from Labour since Iraq.

Something about Miliband's slow, calm delivery made Cameron come across as shrill and red-faced. He even appeared slightly old fashioned, following the old knockabout politics when Miliband's style was less blustery and seemingly more reasonable.

Cameron tried to counter Miliband's quote with one of his own, but by the end it transpired it was from Alan Milburn, basically a world away from the new Labour leader. He's not even an MP anymore. It contrasted poorly with Miliband's quote, which had the benefit of actually once being delivered by Cameron's mouth. The Tory leader tried to salvage the situation with a nice little line, insisting that "all the Labour politicians who won elections have been thrown out the window". It provoked genuine laughs, but it contrasted badly with the fact that he had suddenly become the underdog. When you're losing, as all England football fans know, it's best to praise your victor. No-one wants to get spanked by a weakling.

Miliband's final flourish made much political colour out of the frantic behind-the-scenes panic at the Tory party conference once the child benefit cut was announced and normally friendly papers revealed their fangs. "I bet the PM wishes the BBC blackout [of party conference] had gone ahead it was such a shambles." Even Cameron laughed.

The PM's counter, a laboured joke on Ed not being "red, he's Brown", was funny enough. Certainly funny enough for a normal PMQs. But this wasn't a normal PMQs. Miliband had arrived with a new, unpredictable tactic. His opening performance was devastatingly effective, combining savage political attacks with a moderate, non-party political style. Cameron will have to retreat to devise a new strategy in the face of this.

It was the best day Labour's had for some time, but the party should contain its glee. There are many, many more Wednesdays afternoons to come. Cameron is adept at this sort of thing. He'll try to neutralise Miliband's weirdly effective manner. He'll have to become more detailed in his statistical knowledge and frankly, he'll probably start preparing better. But fundamentally, there's nothing here Cameron can't learn to beat.

He can reassure himself with one thing. There was one quick glimpse of weakness in Miliband's bravado. When he finally came to discuss the single parent figures he had attacked Cameron for not responding to, he suddenly stumbled and began with the word "by my reckoning."

This was the central thrust of his attack. He should have had independent figures to hand and he should have been able to quote from them confidently. That stumble could mean nothing, it could have just preceded a poor choice of phrase. But it hinted at weakness.

We'll find out about that later. For now, the central message the government took from today's performance was that it was unwise to underestimate Ed Miliband. Whatever else he is, he isn't a walkover.


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