It looked like a draw, but Ed Miliband won an important strategic victory today.
By Ian Dunt
PMQs is basically theatre. It relies on confidence, charisma, rhetoric and jokes. The electorate, in its infinite wisdom, is largely unmoved by it. But there is a way of making it work for you, of accomplishing specific political aims with it beyond the passing entertainment of political geeks. Ed Miliband managed that today.
The session began with the Labour leader employing his now traditional tone, a mixture of detailed questioning, a seemingly-reasonable demeanour and a weird wide-eyed stare. He reminds me of a particularly effective teacher I used to have. "Was that you walking out the south entrance this afternoon?" he used to ask, deadpan. "Would you agree that there is a discernible smell of cigarettes on your clothes?" Each question was more incriminating than the last, each was delivered with a nonchalance that masked danger. Miliband is a basically a sniper, dispassionately firing off potentially lethal shots from across the chamber.
"There are reports this morning that the government is reconsidering aspects of their housing benefits reforms. Are they?" he began. Cameron delivered a fairly lengthy and angry response. "I thank the prime minister for that answer," Miliband replied, coldly. "Let me just get complete clarity from him. The work and pensions secretary is reported as saying the government is open to suggestions on the issue of housing benefit. Is the prime minister saying that all the aspects of housing benefit are fixed and are not going to change?" You could almost hear the Jaws soundtrack in the background, a low 'dum-dum, dum-dum' every time Miliband stood up.
Cameron's response was consistently and disarmingly angry. This happened the first time they met at PMQs, a fortnight ago. Even last week, when he basically wiped the floor with Miliband, he allowed himself to adopt a harsh, patronising tone that won't play well with voters, even if parliamentarians rather like it. "I've answered the question," he barked at the Labour benches when they jeered him, his face growing redder. "We must get those people back into work," he shouted. "What does HE want to do?"
By the time it came to the end of the session, the prime minister wanted to close the exchange down on his trump card, the leaked Labour memo advising the opposition leader on how to tackle Cameron. "It's important to have a cheer line that goes down well in the chamber," Cameron read out, the benches around him rolling around with laughter. Miliband looked exquisitely uncomfortable. "He's got a plan for prime minister's questions but he's got no plan for the economy."
The memo provided an open goal for the Tory leader, one he exploited with customary panache. But there won't always be such an easy win to rely on (well, there might be, if Labour doesn't hurry up and find that leak). But backbench Tories didn't look comfortable by the end of the session. They were right not to be. Cameron's seeming inability to maintain his temper during the exchanges with Miliband should worry them. There is a potentially devastating conjunction of Labour's 'gleeful Tory cuts' narrative and scenes of Cameron losing his temper in the Commons while Miliband remains reasonable, moderate and on the side of the vulnerable.
Ultimately, the memo was just too substantial a gift for Miliband to survive it and the theatre of PMQs ended with a draw. But secretly, underneath the surface, something much more important had happened, something which would outlive the evening news. Miliband had achieved what he set out to achieve. Cameron had said it. "We are bringing forward our plans for housing benefit reform," the prime minister confirmed. "We are going forward with all the proposals we put in the spending review."
Miliband had got him exactly where he wanted him. "The whole House will have heard the prime minister has dug himself in," he responded, with a subdued flourish. After the media reports of this morning suggested Iain Duncan Smith was re-considering the policy following complaints from London MPs, after Simon Hughes had made his concerns public, after the ample evidence of Lib Dem discomfort - this was a serious achievement. He had significantly reduced Cameron's room to manoeuvre.
Next, he reverted back to theatre, by highlighting divisions between the Tories and the Lib Dems. Then he went for the laugh. Hughes and Nick Clegg were "glum and glummer". The deputy prime minister, Miliband suggested, looked pretty miserable. "I tell you, it's no wonder he's back on the fags," he said, filling the chamber with laughter.
As if to underline Miliband's achievement, Lib Dem Bob Russell got up at the end of the session to dramatise the problem. "This is not a laughing matter for the thousands of children who could well become homeless," he said sombrely, facing Cameron. "Will the prime minister look again please?" Except, of course, that will now be much harder than it was this morning. Miliband had exacerbated a division between the coalition parties and then reduced the prime minister's wiggle room. Not bad for one session. Underneath the theatre, the opposition leader had secured his victory.