PMQs verdict: Miliband pops Cameron's EU bubble

Popping the bubble: Miliband ends the Tory euphoria
Popping the bubble: Miliband ends the Tory euphoria
Ian Dunt By

The Tory benches were cheering David Cameron as he entered the Chamber for PMQs. It's been a while since they were so enamoured with him. The promise of an EU referendum has given them succour, even after a Commons vote which radically reduced their chances of winning a majority in 2015. The prime minister walks on water, for now at least. By the time the session was over, the benches behind Cameron had more to think about.

Labour maintained discipline. There was strong support for Ed Miliband as he got up to ask his first question, on the flatlining of the UK economy. "What's his excuse this time?" Miliband demanded.

The subject killed the Tory benches' enthusiasm stone-dead. Cameron made good use of an ill-timed cheer from the Labour side during a mention of fourth quarter GDP contraction, but he struggled under his own evident economic failure.

Miliband branded him "complacent", but if anyone is complacent, it's the Labour leader. He need do nothing but compare Cameron's promises from 2010 with the reality Britain is faced with now.

Miliband was particularly predictable and unconvincing today, bringing out all the usual tricks. He stopped halfway through an answer to mock the 'part-time chancellor's' advice to the PM. He kicked off with a mock sympathetic tone dripping with sarcasm. It's all run-of-the-mill for the leader of the opposition, and increasingly ineffective.

Cameron was up to his usual tricks as well, although he was particularly evasive today. He jumped all around the policy agenda – from employment stats to the high speed rail route – to avoid discussing economic growth. He retains his habit of ending points with a strong tone and a fast delivery, projecting dominance and machismo, but the content is plainly vacuous.

"He promises a better tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes," Miliband said. It was a great line which, if the economy proceeds as expected, you can look forward to hearing more of at election time.

Cameron's response was telling. After doing the usual Labour-got-us-into-this-mess routine, he stuttered: "He may want to talk about tomorrow, but he doesn't want to talk about yesterday."

The coalition's efforts to blame everything on Labour are starting to grate. Recent panel discussions on TV and radio have seen audiences roll their eyes and boo when ministers try it. As any political analyst knows, the candidate who looks to the past always loses. Voters want to know what happens in the future. Miliband was looking forward, as Cameron tried to drag the debate back to the past. It's a bad sign for the prime minister.

On the other hand, Miliband's argument palpably fails the public resonance test. His central theme – that Labour borrowing will be better than Conservative borrowing – is economically valid, if not necessarily true, but it sounds ridiculous. Voters are unlikely to be convinced by it. It is easy for Cameron to throw back at him.

But Miliband will have a spring in his step for one reason. By relentlessly focusing on the economy, he killed off that simmering Tory jubilation. The government benches looked pensive and unsettled by the time the session ended. Despite all the bluster, they know it is the economy, not Europe, which voters will judge them on in 2015.


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