In all likelihood, we have today witnessed the final clash across the despatch box between David Cameron and Ed Miliband. Given the calibre of some of their most recent exchanges I suspect the public – nor either combatant – will not be especially sad to see this day come. Miliband has spoken openly recently of how “awful” he finds PMQs while David Cameron’s heart often simply doesn’t seem to be in it anymore.
The four and a half years’ worth of battles between Cameron and Miliband is the longest unchanged PM-Leader of the Opposition joust since the seven-year rivalry of Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock. It is perhaps unsurprising then that their contest has become rather stale. If it sounds at times like we’ve heard it all before, it is because we almost certainly have.
Today Cameron got the better of things. It was one of those sessions where the Labour leader’s line of questioning lost its potency when the PM gave an unexpected answer to the first question: asked by Miliband if he would give “a straight answer to a straight question” and rule out a rise in VAT, the PM cheerfully confirmed that “Yes”, he would. Miliband battled, but from that point Cameron was in little doubt he had already won the day’s main battle and he moved on to goading Miliband over whether Labour would raise National Insurance. The leader of the opposition will be disappointed not to have scored a victory in the final PMQs of the Parliament – but he can take solace from the fact that events will move on quickly as we move into the short campaign, with little time likely to be spent dwelling on today’s setback.
As stale as the Miliband and Cameron clashes have become in recent months, it is worth looking back over their tenures as the principle actors in Parliament’s most high profile piece of weekly theatre to see what lessons we may be able to draw for the short campaign ahead. Although there will be no head-to-head TV debate, the contest between Cameron and Miliband will remain the focal point of much of the coverage of the election. What should we look out for?
1) Miliband can do detail
Although both men come from special adviser backgrounds, Cameron has often been described as a ‘PR man’ compared to Miliband the ‘policy wonk’. Though an over-simplification in both instances, this has nonetheless been evident at times in their PMQs exchanges. Some of Miliband’s most notable triumphs have come when he has challenged the PM on a piece of detail that he was not fully on top of, be it on missed targets in the NHS or the minutiae of hedge fund taxation. Expect Miliband to have a few such nuggets up his sleeve for the seven-way leaders’ debate and throughout the campaign as he attempts to undermine the PM’s record in government.
2) Cameron does well when he is in a corner
The PMQs sessions that have often proven the biggest disappointment for Miliband have been those where he appeared in advance to have an ‘open goal’ in front of him. On these occasions Cameron tends to come out on the offensive, often leaving us wondering how he managed to snatch victory – or at least a score draw – from the jaws of defeat. In the seven-way debate in particular – when he has to fend off six (or five and a half including Nick Clegg) opponents attacking his record at once – this combative approach to defending his record will stand Cameron in particularly good stead.
3) But the PM needs to watch his temper
Cameron’s tendency to turn a shade of crimson and start lashing out at opponents during certain sessions at the despatch box earned him the nickname ‘Flashman’. His ‘calm down dear’ jibe at Angela Eagle was one of the more memorable PMQs moments in this Parliament and illustrated the PM’s occasional lapses into condescension. Tomorrow night the PM will be grilled by Jeremy Paxman – it is under the sort of aggressive cross-examination he can expect in that session that Cameron will need to ensure he keeps his emotions in check if he is to avoid any embarrassing moments.
4) Jokes aren’t their strongest suit
When utilised effectively, humour is one of the most potent weapons in the political arsenal. Cameron and Miliband have both managed the occasional zinger at PMQs over the years – some might say Cameron more so than Miliband – but these tend to be the exception rather than the norm. Miliband has a good line in self-deprecating humour – demonstrated in his recent appearance on BBC 3’s ‘Free Speech’ programme – but on the whole both men could do with some new gag writers for the campaign ahead.
5) For Miliband, it’s about character
As noted recently on these pages, Miliband increasingly wants to make his contest with the Prime Minister one about character. Accusing the PM of breaking his promises whilst being in the pocket of wealthy backers is something that Miliband thinks can pay dividends. There is sure to be plenty more attacks along those lines as the campaign unfolds.
6) Cameron thinks Miliband is weak, weak, weak
Perhaps Tony Blair’s most memorable PMQs put-down was when he lambasted John Major as ‘weak, weak, weak’ when he couldn’t control his rebellious backbenches. Cameron’s attacks on Miliband at PMQs over the years have often had echoes of that jibe. He believes that line of attack chimes with voter’s perceptions of Miliband. He will kick those attacks into overdrive in the short campaign. Ed will need a thick skin.
Have the last five years’ of PMQs exchanges been worth it? If you were after insightful policy analysis and well considered, rational debate, probably not. But they have been insightful in their own way, showing us how Cameron and Miliband fare in the most ferocious Parliamentary environment.
Though there is perpetual talk of reforming the sessions, Prime Minister’s Questions will inevitably be back.
The question now is who’ll be the PM answering the Qs.