PMQs sketch: Cameron in disarray over phone-hacking

Imagine a packed but silent coliseum, in which the red-clad gladiator shakes his head sadly as he plunges his sword into the chest of his blue-clad opponent. That just about sums up this very odd, and utterly fascinating, PMQs.

By Alex Stevenson

Ed Miliband has had open goals before – more than he would care to remember. But he has never polished off the opportunity as he did today. The phone-hacking scandal, shocking in its detail and devastating in its implications, delivered the Labour leader with his first comprehensively one-sided victory. Labour spin doctors are 'letting Ed be Ed'. What a huge change from his disastrous performance of just a month ago.

The approach which works best for Miliband is not, as it turns out, the clunking fist of his Labour leader predecessor. Nor does it seek to emulate the suave self-assurance of David Cameron or, for that matter, Tony Blair. Instead, Miliband allows himself to be solemn and disappointed, as if his pessimistic expectations about the prime minister have let him down personally. It's like having Eeyore as leader of the opposition.

The transition in tone from the sad, quiet respectful period at the start of the exchange, when the leaders pay tribute to fallen British service personnel, was undetectable. Miliband, in sombre tones, said the whole country was "appalled" by the revelations. Nick Clegg, who looked like he was secretly trying to hide the fact he agreed more with Miliband than Cameron, nodded firmly. The entire Commons, as if they had rehearsed it beforehand, said together: "Sha-ame." Miliband shook his head.

The PM's surprise announcement that an inquiry will take place into phone-hacking, a major concession, could have threatened to derail Miliband's line of questioning. "It is absolutely disgusting what has taken place," Cameron said, looking disgusted. But there was no sign of desperate scrabbling around for notes from the opposition frontbench. Instead Miliband pressed on, wanting to know whether the process could start immediately.

"I want to respond positively and let me do so," Cameron said, before ultimately responding negatively. It turned out, he explained, that this couldn't really take place until the police investigation was completed. "I don't want us to rush this decision," he added, in full Sir Humphrey Appleby mode.

The silence was slowly replaced by more and more noise from Labour MPs. This wasn't the usual cheery heckling, though. It was more angry, more visceral. It was the slowly growing Middle England outrage members of a queue make when a cheeky chappy pushes his way to the front. "Just because we can't do everything doesn't mean we can't do anything," Miliband said. It was exactly the sort of soundbite which had sounded artificial before. Now it sounded off the cuff.

In quiet weeks Miliband might have stuck to his guns on this one point, getting the same answer from the PM every time. Not this lunchtime. He moved on quickly to the implications for the BSkyB takeover, which is becoming increasingly linked in the public mind to the phone-hacking scandal. Miliband suggested it should be kicked into the long grass of a Competition Commission inquiry. He "makes a good point", Cameron said, in his final doomed attempt at pretending to agree. Unfortunately, he explained, the government had to follow the "correct legal process". Labour MPs, I scribbled in my notes, were "very unimpressed".

Miliband's reply was, perhaps, his high point. "I'm afraid," he said, sounding more like Eeyore than ever, "that answer was out of touch with millions of people." We were allowed to let this thoroughly regrettable situation sink in. "I know this is difficult for him," he moaned, upping the patronising stakes still further, "but I strongly urge him to think again".

Cameron, finally dropping his meaningless agree-a-thon, was in a corner now. He came out fighting, claiming Miliband had "done a U-turn" on the issue since yesterday. It was one of less memorable political jibes, that's for sure.

Miliband's sad reply was, for once, ill-advised. "This is not the time for technicalities," he said. At which point the entirety of the government backbenches, who until now had been awkwardly trying to pretend they were somewhere else, erupted in laughter. They finally had something to cheer. But it didn't last. For Miliband was now asking the PM whether News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks should consider her position.

"You have to look at the technicalities," Cameron protested, ignoring the question. "Answer!" Labour MPs demanded angrily. "We should let the police do their work," Cameron pleaded. Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who persuaded the Speaker to hold this afternoon's three-hour debate on the topic, threw up his arms in disgust.

Miliband finished with a flourish, too, as he wound up for the knockout blow which has eluded him for so long. "He hasn't shown the leadership necessary today," he said. "He's got to accept he made a catastrophic error of judgement by bringing Andy Coulson into the heart of his Downing Street team!"

The prime minister's agony, confronted with the former News of the World editor who he made head of his communications team in No 10, was acute. "I take full responsibility for everyone I employ, for everyone I appoint," he replied, hopelessly.

Cameron seemed more at a loss at the despatch box than at any time before. Miliband, the triumphant victor, just looked disappointed. This really was a very odd PMQs.