PMQs review: bodyline bowling leaves Cameron bruised but still standing

Nik Darlington 1.52pm

This week Ed Miliband dumped the plumping and opted for splitting. The Labour party leader’s half dozen sandwiched a Soames patsy.

David Cameron must have been delighted to receive that gentle long-hop by his Honourable Friend from Mid-Sussex, because he was peppered either side by an over of accurate fast bowlling. Soames’ delivery was a free hit but none of Miliband’s were no-balls.

The Prime Minister ducked and swayed and manfully survived this parliamentary bodyline but his pained expression betrayed unease. It was like watching Atherton versus Donald at Trent Bridge in 1998, except David Cameron must have wished he had twenty-two yards separating him from his opponent, not two.

The first half of Miliband’s over was economical and educational. Inflation is up, growth stalled last quarter, and youth unemployment has hit record levels. The new ball fizzed but the Prime Minister is a sound batsman and stood tall, playing each on its merits. He stated correctly that youth unemployment has been a problem for many years, particularly under Labour. The Sun reports that more than half a million school leavers in the period 1997-2010 have never had a job. So Labour can’t lecture on youth unemployment. Moreover, we are coming to the end of an adolescent demographic surge, during which the youth population grew faster than the workforce. This affects all Governments.

The temperature rose with an attack about EMA. This is a weak spot for the Government - not because the policy is bad (it’s not, it is absolutely right) but because it is a presentational problem of ministers’ making. Labour wanted to go much further and had plans to scrap it entirely. This Government is not scrapping EMA, as claimed, but re-directing it towards those who need it the most. The mistake has been to scrap the name and re-package it as something else.

Once Mr Soames had given the Prime Minister time to take a walk to square leg and do some gardening, Ed Miliband resumed with an unplayable salvo on forestry sales: “Is the Prime Minister happy with his flagship policy on forests?” So unplayable, in fact, that Mr Cameron could only return it with a wry smile and an honest answer. “No.” Twice Miliband asked him whether he would drop the policy and twice he replied (truthfully) that a decision had not been made and there was currently a consultation. It is the proper response but the discomfort was clear. The whole exercise is becoming increasingly difficult to defend.

David Cameron finished their exchange on something of a high. After an earlier, pre-planned quip about Miliband’s internships had fallen flat, he regained some pride with one more spontaneous: “He wrote the questions before he’d listened to the answers. I think the bandwagon has hit a tree.”

It was the sort of self-effacing humour that used to get Tony Blair off of sticky wickets - turning a reference to his own difficulty back towards the opposition - but not nearly enough to salvage anything approaching a win. The Prime Minister is too good for his adversary for his defences to be breached completely. Nevertheless, the minnow Miliband scored a moral victory.  At least David Cameron can point with some confidence to the fact that they are playing out a five year Test Match, not a short-term Twenty20.

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