PMQs verdict: Battered and bruised, but Miliband’s winning the long game

Neither of them have a leg to stand on. If you want a despairing portrait of modern British politics, the sight of Ed Miliband and David Cameron flinging entirely justified accusations of political corruption at each other might just be it.

Miliband arrived at PMQs with his sleeves metaphorically rolled up. He was done with being the punching bag of last week. The Labour leader cut his losses yesterday with a daring speech outlining a new opt-in system for trade union members and was set to turn the tables on Cameron. With his own house supposedly in order, he would be free to sling all sorts of horror stories at the prime minister.

How much money did hedge funds donate to the Tories? Miliband inquired. Cameron didn't answer. "£25 million," Miliband informed him. And then, he observed, George Osborne cut taxes on hedge funds in the Budget. It's almost as if there's a link.

It's filth, of course. Miliband is quite right to focus relentlessly on it. If the money didn't buy influence why would they do it? Cameron has a rather convincing answer, namely that these donations do not buy conference votes or the power to select party leaders. Unlike Labour.

Miliband's reliance on union votes for the leadership comes back to haunt him again and again.

The noise in the Commons chamber was as loud as I've ever heard it. At several points I couldn't make out what the prime minister was saying, something which has never happened before. Most of the noise came from the Labour benches, although Cameron managed to win the support of his own backbenchers on several crucial occasions.

Miliband challenged Cameron to back a £5,000 cap on donations. The Tories aren't big fans of that, because it rather complicates a funding system based on a small number of large donations. Their counter-demand is that union funding be capped at that level as well, although this charge will have less currency if Miliband manages to secure his reforms. Either way, a low cap would necessarily entail public funding of political parties. "It would imply a massive amount of taxpayer support for political parties," Cameron barked, winning major support from his own MPs.

Miliband moved on to MPs' second jobs. There are suddenly a wealth of tools of his disposal and he was eager to make use of all of them. He wants a ban on MPs picking up any new secondary sources of income once they enter the Commons and a limit on how much it pays. There are several Labour MPs who make use of this system, but it's predominantly a Tory thing.

Cameron wasn't playing ball. What matters is that everything's "transparent and open", he insisted. The Labour leader has him firmly on the wrong side of an issue.

But Cameron had his own manoeuvre. He offered a law to do all the things Miliband wants to change about union funding of Labour. "We will legislate," he offered the Labour leader.

At this point, Miliband made a mistake. He ignored the question altogether. It was a bad move. He sacrificed his moral upper hand.

Instead, he should have turned down the offer, saying he wanted to get the agreements through using the party's internal mechanisms and respecting the long relationship with working people which the union link represents. But Miliband is not the most impressive leader when it comes to thinking on his feet and instead he ran from the question, barely concealing the panic in his eyes.

"They own you lock, stock and block vote!" Cameron shouted.

Miliband replied: "This is a man owned by a few millionaires."

It was a very noisy dead heat. Labour MPs dutifully stood up to direct more questions at Cameron on Miliband's chosen topic. It didn't make much difference, although it showed the opposition acting in a coordinated way which has been missing from its recent outings.

What, if anything, gave Miliband the advantage? Merely the fact that he seemed better prepared for the long game ahead.

On MPs' second jobs, he has Cameron right where he wants him: on the wrong side of the public. The same is true for the donations cap. Assuming he wins his battle with the unions, he will be a strong position against his opponent.

Cameron's reliance on union conspiracies is not unfair. Miliband hasn't said anything, for instance, on why unions should have a role picking the party leader. There are weaknesses there. But the theatrical strength of the argument will be weakened by Miliband's well-publicised battle with the unions.

On what remains, it is Cameron who is in the weaker position.