PMQs verdict: Half a hope for Miliband
Every so often Ed Miliband looks like he has made a bit of a breakthrough in PMQs. Then he ruins it. Today, he managed to fit the whole process into six short questions.
It was unfortunate for the Labour leader because it looked, for a short while, like he might have actually come up with an original new take on the art of prime minister's questions.
Sometimes Miliband has chosen to go for the statesman approach – the sort of sober-minded formulations of questions designed to show he is capable of agreeing with the prime minister about issues of great international importance. They are high-minded, serious and utterly tedious.
Mostly, the brash partisanship expected of a leader of the opposition takes over. No-one in Miliband's job can survive long if they don't take this superb opportunity to take the PM by surprise and score some political points. So PMQs is usually whipped up into its usual froth with his divisive, controversial questions. They are entertaining and are loved by lobby journalists, but the public despise them and are turned off. Neither necessarily get Miliband very far.
Today, perhaps for the first time, he managed to come up with a third way.
His first three questions focused on a request to get Britain to "set an example" by signing up to a UN agreement to take its fair share of refugees from Syria. The issue is emotive and one of principle; perfect fodder for a leader of the opposition, and especially one whose own father had fled to Britain from the Nazis.
Cameron was unsure how to play this. That was the beauty of his gambit: Miliband was being political about an issue where he and his opponent fundamentally agreed. Yet this was PMQs, so they had to have a blazing row if at all possible.
You appreciate the PM's dilemma. It's like having a cosy chat with the man who's jumped out of a dark alley holding a knife. You feel like things ought to be progressing a bit more quickly than they are, and it makes you nervous.
The prime minister went on to the defensive like it was some sort of irrepressible muscle reflex. He talked at length about Britain meeting its moral obligations, and tried to rustle up a conflict by warning of the dangers of filling quotas for quotas' sake. He was flapping around like a fish out of water, desperate for oxygen.
The correct course of action when confronted with a flapping fish is to take a blunt instrument and beat it over the head until it dies. Miliband is a bit too nice for this sort of thing. He changed the subject.
"I want to move on to today's fall in employment," he said. The Tories, who had been waiting patiently for an opportunity to make his life a misery, cheered on cue. "We do welcome it!" Miliband insisted. Another Tory cheer. "Just braying like that doesn't do anybody any good," Miliband complained. The government benches just laughed.
What followed was utterly predictable, because we've seen it approximately 1,756 times before. Cameron is happy to bash Labour for its record on the economy until the cows come home (they're scheduled in May 2015). The economt is important and can't be ignored, but Labour will win this argument on living standards on the doorstep, not in the Commons.
It was a return to the same-old same-old approach which, let's face it, hasn't got Miliband very far over the years. All the questions asked by journalists in the press gallery huddle afterwards were about Syria. No 10's spinner talked about the "measure of agreement" between the two leaders, whereas Miliband's people pointed out they weren't being political – but it would be "shameful" if Britain didn't sign up to the UN's refugee arrangements.
A very neat bit of politiciking, there. Now all Miliband needs to do is stick at it and not get distracted. If he was to adopt this approach every week, he might even be able to change PMQs.
We won't be holding our breath.