PMQs verdict: A midterm shambles – but Cameron keeps grinning

The fact MPs were sitting down and stationary for the first prime minister's questions is not going to stop this writer claiming they all had a spring in their step.

That might seem like some fairly slapdash writing, you might claim. Well, you were obviously not paying attention to PMQs. Had you watched this lunchtime's exchanges you would have learned this sort of sloppiness is not a problem. This was a PMQs where even the most terrible of failures were capable of being wafted away with nothing more than a grin. The coalition was being lambasted for apparently covering up their broken pledges, in what appears to be the most shambolic of PR disasters. The opposition faces a pummelling over its lack of policies. Yet all could be shrugged off with a grin and a smile. Politicians have obviously had such a good festive break that they were bursting with good cheer.

Ed Miliband, who as Cameron happily pointed out has been sunning himself in the Canary Islands, was delighted to flag up the midterm review shambles as an easy 'gimme' to kick his 2013 off. Nick Clegg grinned the moment he raised it, as he knows all too well the farcical nature of how this audit came to light. Cameron responded by listing the coalition's achievements, which prompted Miliband and Ed Balls to grin with delight. Ed M came back with some quotes from the Rose Garden press conference, which made George Osborne grin from ear to ear. You get the idea.

As took place during one PMQs in the run-up to Christmas, Cameron found himself anticipating the end of Miliband's questions a little prematurely. He leapt up, throwing his folder on the despatch box with a bang, and stood opposite Miliband while the Labour leader kept on speaking. This never happens. Maybe it was its rarity that made this sight so powerfully confrontational. It only lasted a moment, but it was one electric in intensity. Cameron soon sprawled back on to the green benches, grinning to himself.

It just reflected the bullish attitude the PM was taking to the whole occasion. He dealt with the unusually effective combined attacks from Labour backbenchers with aplomb. Miliband was leaving the legwork to his backbenchers, who – whether by prior design or not – were almost exclusively focusing their questions on the government's benefits reforms.

This is no surprise following yesterday's extraordinarily acrimonious debate. The prime minister has no problem playing this game, though; the Tories think they can win over a large chunk of 'strivers' by making the arguments Cameron put forward. By the end of the session, there was the slightest hint the PM was getting a bit weary. "You've really got to start taking some responsibility," he huffed to the Labour party at large. Their response was to laugh dismissively.

2013 has begun with unusually high levels of party unity, as Cameron's respect to his backbenchers appeared to show today. He was careful to deal with a convoluted question about the royal succession from the father of the House, Sir Peter Tapsell, with courteous civility. When pressed by right-winger Philip Davies whether he was keener on Norman Tebbit or Nick Clegg, he joked: "I managed to get through Christmas without spending any time with either of them." This was presumably intended to balance out the cosiness of his coalition arrangements with the Lib Dem leader.

Cameron went further, though. In the tone one uses after some light humour to indicate a polite return to seriousness, he said sweetly: "I am closer to any Conservative than I am to anyone from any other party." Take that, Nick. Clegg responded in the only way you'd expect him to: with a grin.