PMQs review: David Cameron demonstrates the virtue of being oneself

Jack Blackburn 3.55pm

It was not the most inspiring session of PMQs. The Leader of the Opposition’s strategy was non-existent. Questions were a bit scatter-gun and he didn’t really make any points. Perhaps it was the impending Hillsborough statement that made the atmosphere a touch quieter than typical.

But if it was just for the day, Mr Cameron should consider keeping this style.

Edward was calling him “Mr Butch”, but today Dave was Mr Chillaxing. He was quiet, controlled, on top of his brief. He didn’t lose his cool at any point. He didn’t shout. He didn’t even tell a female Member to calm down.

He only changed tone to crack a few jokes (apparently the Labour party has hired a new guru called Mr J. Hacker, who has written a book called The Road to Nowhere, allowing DC to roll out some lines from his “Cheap but effective” line).

There was even some substance as well, as the Prime Minister enjoyed some positive employment figures. Indeed, with his chillax on, Mr Cameron seemed to make more sense. He was (as ever) accused of complacency by the Labour party leader, but he actually came across as thoughtful, and honest, at one point saying the Mr Miliband was “absolutely right, the long-term employment figured are disturbing”.

After a year when the Prime Minister’s fortunes have seemingly mirrored those of Glasgow Rangers FC, one of his smaller problems has been his performance at PMQs, as he became frequently and easily riled by Ed Balls, and seemed to be struggling with Mr Miliband’s improved act.

Today he seemed like a changed man and more prime ministerial than he has been for a while, an impression backed up by his well-judged statement on Hillsborough.

On Monday, Mr Cameron was Boris Johnson’s warm-up man at the end of the Team GB parade, the Mayor of London delivering a rip-roaring speech.

Mr Johnson’s challenges with public speaking are different from the Prime Minister’s, but the Mayor is effective because he is always himself. Mr Cameron could learn from this. He is a thoughtful and intelligent man. If he continues to take his time and bring these qualities to the fore, he may find that he engages better with the public.

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Rhythm is a dancer at PMQs

Jack Blackburn 3.30pm

As Dave and Edward know (both being Oxonians) it is Commemoration Ball season: a time for dancing.

There was an element of that at PMQs today and, in the manner of the modern day ball, the participants were dancing without much discernible sense of rhythm. The music playing at the moment is much more to Edward’s taste than Dave’s, but everyone’s bringing out their own moves. Just don’t call it a U-turn. It’s a volte face.

These days, Edward Miliband has many dances he can trot out, but he chose the fuel duty “U-turn”: the latest contribution to the budgeting omnishambles, made all the more embarrassing by Chloe Smith’s unfortunate “Michael Howard moment” on Newsnight last night.

“U-turn? What U-turn?”, said Dave, claiming that it was a Labour tax they were getting rid of. “Ever since we came to office we have been defusing Labour’s tax bombshell.”

Dave’s major implication though was that the Leader of the Opposition was two-faced. He supports Lords Reform but is against the programme motion. He’s for stopping the increases in fuel duty, but against the Government’s “change of mind” to do so. The line Mr Cameron is trying to lay down by implication is that Mr Miliband is an opportunist.

Even though the Government has so far had an annus horribilis, there is no denying that Mr Miliband has looked more like a scavenger of their misery, than a viable alternative. This is despite a definite improvement in his personal style, most obviously marked in his weekly performances at PMQs. Nevertheless, he still cannot land a knockout blow, or even score open goals. The judges should be giving him nines and tens at present, but Edward’s twinkle-toes often leave himself at sixes and sevens.

Edward’s major problem is his lack of detail; his insistence on repeating debatable, rhetorical points as if they were indisputable facts. Things are going for him at the moment, but he just isn’t producing. What will happen when the fortunes turn, and the government starts getting the rub of the green?

Furthermore, the Government couldn’t be doing more to help Edward out. Today, while defending George Osborne’s alleged “cowardice” in not facing the press yesterday, the Prime Minister said that the Chancellor had faced the Commons, and in doing so had “wrong-footed” Ed Balls. That’s all well and good, but George Osborne’s adroit volte face wrong-footed everyone, to the point that Cabinet ministers were briefing for the increase all through yesterday morning, and poor Chloe Smith was sent up Newsnight creek, without a paddle, or a boat.

With all of this ammunition at his disposal, Edward still failed to score a clear win today. One wonders how he will dance when the music’s no longer to his liking.

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PMQs review: A muttering idiot of a draw

Jack Blackburn 3.45pm

The last Prime Minister’s Questions for three weeks before a joint Jubilee and Whitsun recess was a distinctly bizarre scoreless draw.

It didn’t so much resemble the two most senior politicians in the land debating matters of policy, as it did two angry siblings who simply weren’t listening to each other. Oh, and there was an irritating cousin thrown into the mix.

Edward Miliband’s tactic today was divide and rule. It is one we can expect to see more of over the coming months. Seeking to exploit the evident antagonism between the Business Secretary and Adrian Beecroft, author of this week’s controversial report on employment reform, the Leader of the Opposition set about asking where the Prime Minister stood.

This strategy is brazen but flawed, not least because all the front bench Lib Dems were strangely absent, thereby not allowing for television shots of awkward Lib Dems.

However, Mr Cameron avoided fulsomely embracing the report, suggesting that some recommendations would be taken and others would not, before the major exchange descended into an unstructured melee.

Edward tried to score points on, well, just about anything: Hunt, Coulson, growth, tax cuts for millionaires -  they were all there, culminating in his claim that “the nasty party is back”. Dave started banging on about the trade unions influence on Labour policy. All of the questions and the answers seem to have been decided quite some time before the session. It was a total damp squib.

The meat of the session actually took place after the Leader of the Opposition had sat down. The Prime Minister was asked about the ECHR’s ruling on voting rights for prisoners. The Prime Minister said he would stand for the sovereignty of Parliament and his belief that going to prison meant you lost certain rights, including the right to vote. This is a story that shall keep on rolling.

However, the headlines were stolen by that irritating cousin, namely Ed Balls. He repeatedly asked the Prime Minister how many glasses of wine he’d had, and needled the Flashman in Dave, as is his desire. Finally, by now having “we’re in recession” chanted at him by Mr Balls, Dave could take no more and Flashman flipped. He described the Shadow Chancellor as a “muttering idiot”, causing uproar in the chamber.

Succumbing to goading as such an easy thing to do. It is also easy to wind someone up. However, both these important public figures should not be doing it. Mr Cameron was forced to withdraw his “unparliamenatry” comment. Mr Balls is not subject to sanction. Speaker Bercow, of the pseudo-Headmasterly air, should perhaps get in touch with that instinct now, because these two schoolboys could use some discipline.

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PMQs review: Score draw but the Prime Minister’s arsenal is worryingly bare

Jack Blackburn 2.08pm

The Government’s fortunes and the composure of its ministers have crumbled over recent months, though it is worth noting that the Leader of the Opposition’s polling numbers have still not managed to match his party’s.

So as we arrived at the first PMQs since April we found a leadership vacuum, created by a Government in disarray, a Prime Minister under pressure from all sides, and a Labour party leader seemingly unable to act like a leader.

This PMQs also took place in a very different context to the last. Disastrous local election results (London’s Mayor aside) for the Coalition parties still sting. The national economy seems to have tumbled into a double-dip recession. We are being badly buffeted by continuing turmoil in the Eurozone, where an anti-austerity Frenchman has just taken up residence in the Élysée palace and Greece is crippled by political upheaval.

To use a recent (and for me painful) sporting illustration, the leaders were level on points going into today’s match, with Mr Miliband ahead on goal difference. This was a mid-term fixture rather than an end-of-season cliff-hanger, but it as was scrappy, messy and confused as the Premier League’s climax, if nowhere near as exciting too.

Mr Miliband has plenty of arsenal at his disposal at the moment. Dreadful growth figures, unhappy nurses, protesting police officers, the controversial Leveson Inquiry, electoral reverses and the seemingly changing political breeze in Europe should have meant that Mr Cameron was in for a torrid time at the Despatch Box. Nevertheless, there was a crumb of comfort for the Prime Minister today in the form of falling unemployment.

Mr Cameron began by using this to his advantage, welcoming a question from his own backbenches, but stressing (as all the Cabinet has done this morning) that the Government is not complacent. There is more to be done. Etcetera. And for once, Mr Miliband also welcomed good economic news, but was quick to try to press home some advantage by questioning what discussions the PM had taken part in with President Hollande about growth plans for France and Europe.

The answer could have simply been, “Well, haven’t really spoken to him since he was elected.” So Edward suggested a text message with “LOL” in it would probably be sufficient. Uncharacteristically funny, and well delivered.

In fact, Mr Miliband’s entire style of performance has improved immensely. He is calm, considered and no longer whiny. Nonetheless, Mr Cameron remains an adept performer himself, and responded strongly: “I may well have used my mobile phone too much, but at least as Prime Minister I know how to use one rather than just throw it at those who work with me”. The Rt Hon Member for Kirkcaldy was, as usual, nowhere to be seen.

Mr Miliband was indeed more impressive today, though still blew it by failing once again to capitalise effectively on the Prime Minister’s all-too-evident woes. He left the economy debate too quickly, so eager was he to cram in questions on policing and nurses, while also failing to pose a question on his sixth time of coming. The eyes were bigger than his abilities.

Yet Mr Cameron also fumbled the ball today, particularly with his final response to his opponent, when he attempted to criticise Labour’s new policy supremo John Cruddas as someone too close to the trades unions. At moments such as those, one realises just how little ammunition the Prime Minister has at his disposal.

PMQs review: As a debate it was dreadful, but as a spectacle it was riotous

Jack Blackburn 1.39pm

There they were, their entourages in tow, ready for the latest bout in this series of fights organised by the NHS and Andrew Lansley. In the blue corner, the reigning champion, Dave “Flashman” Cameron. In the red corner, his spindly challenger, Edward “Not to be confused with David” Miliband.

Cameron entered the arena, flanked by his regular posse of Clegg and Hague, the latter offering vocal support, and the former performing an amusing mime act entitled, “Don’t do anything”.

Miliband, however, shook up his team, pushing Ed “Gesticulating” Balls to one side and replacing him with Andy “Eyebrows” Burnham. The scene was set. The atmosphere was expectant. The referee was impotent.

Edward tried to get an attack going with a few jabs, pointing at the ridiculous NHS summit from Monday. But Dave held his defence initially, deciding on a tactic of skipping round Edward, evading his questions.

So Edward tried again, and briefly there was some excitement in the ring as Dave fought back, challenging his opponent to ask a question about the substance of the bill. He said that Labour used to be in favour of choice, competition and GPs being in charge of budgets, but now they’re against it.

This should have been the start of a classic encounter, but a melee broke out around them and the chamber descended into utter chaos. Burnham began shouting with such verbosity that even Balls was impressed by, nay jealous of, such talents.

When Andrew Lansley tried to hand his pugilist some notes, Edward jumped on him like a cat: “The Prime Minister doesn’t want advice from you!” John “Squeaker” Bercow intervened for the 27th time in the session. He had been up and down like a jack-in-the-box, but nobody was paying any attention.

After which, Cameron stood up when it wasn’t even his question. There were howls, whoops, laughs and jeers. It was as like hearing the canned laughter tracks from the BBC’s radiophonic workshop on a diabolical loop.

Cameron called his Labour opponents “rank opportunists”, once again neatly avoiding answering any questions. Edward said that this was going to become Cameron’s “Poll Tax”, once again neatly avoiding making any statements of policy.

As a debate it was dreadful, but as spectacle it was joyous. Edward Miliband was actually quite funny. You’d have to have been there, but he was funny.

In fact, we’ve seen a real improvement from Edward this term. One wonders how he’ll fare on a topic other than the NHS. He can’t keep this up for three years.

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PMQs: The Leader of the Opportunists won the day but he missed the point entirely

Jack Blackburn 3.38pm

Was it the operating theatre or the morgue at Prime Minister’s Questions? Perhaps it was a macabre combination of the two.

On the operating table lay Mr Lansley’s NHS Bill: sick, deformed but on powerful life-support sustained by Number 10.

Above it there are two surgeons, Dave and Edward, wielding scalpels not on the patient but at each other.

In the corner is a helpless Mr Lansley, who looked on while his reforms were tossed around the operating room like a chew-toy.

This was the scene of a particularly rowdy PMQs. Armed with endless quotations and declarations of opposition from various royal colleges, the Leader of the Opposition took on the manner of a boyish irritant, constantly poking the Prime Minister until Dave got upset. “I’m not surprised he’s getting so agitated,” Edward said, with a hint of smugness.

The Prime Minister struggled today. The NHS Bill is certainly a thorn in his side. He attempted to argue it out on facts and figures, but Edward gave far better than he got on this occasion. By four questions in, David Cameron was losing the session, finding it nigh on impossible to carry the weight of an unpopular bill and a split coalition.

The only reason why Mr Cameron was able to get a decent showing in today, and he did, was that Edward over-stretched, as he tends to do.

He couldn’t quite control himself, choosing to query openly the Health Secretary’s job security. The lack of grace gave Mr Cameron the opportunity for some return fire. He characterised Labour as “opportunists”, said that Mr Miliband was not trying to save the NHS but his own job, and responded to the goading of the Health Secretary by quipping that Lansley’s job prospects were “considerably better” than Edward’s.

Today, the Tory Reform Group has been subject to the type of over-zealous citations that the Leader of the Opportunists loves.

Edward said that the TRG was against the NHS Bill, presumably referring to Craig Barrett’s piece on these pages. In that blog, Craig did advise Mr Lansley to accept defeat and drop the Bill, though not the much-needed reform of the NHS.

We are of course flattered that Mr Miliband reads these pages, which must frequently be a somewhat masochistic experience for him. But his family history ought to teach him that the views of some do not necessarily represent the opinion of the whole. This is a blog that takes pride in the free expression of opinion and debate and posts do not represent the corporate view of the TRG, as our disclaimer (see to the right) and this earlier statement state very clearly.

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Tory Reform Group response to Ed Miliband

Nik Darlington and Alexander Pannett 2.15pm

Today, Ed Miliband claimed that the Tory Reform Group was against reform of the NHS.

Mr Miliband was referring to an article written by Craig Barrett, an independent contributor to Egremont, who suggested that Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, should accept defeat over the Health & Social Care Bill.

Contrary to Mr Miliband’s claims, Craig’s article specifically encourages NHS reforms:

We ought not consider the NHS purely in financial terms because the benefits to the nation’s health and well-being must outweigh the mere cost. Yet that is not an argument for it to remain unchallenged or unreformed. The NHS must be continually analysed and rationalised to ensure that it is fit for purpose in the modern world.

In a further response, Tim Crockford, TRG Chairman, has the following comments for Ed Miliband:

“The Tory Reform Group supports the health reforms and competition within the NHS. For 13 years, the Labour Party failed to make the proper and necessary reforms to our NHS.

The statement by Ed Miliband at today’s Prime Minister Question Time, as to the view of the Tory Reform Group, is false and a complete misrepresentation. Quoting an extract from an article by a TRG blog contributor and attributing this to the Tory Reform Group is further evidence of how desperate Ed Milliband and the Labour Party have become.”

Victoria Roberts, TRG Deputy Chairman, said:

“Ed Miliband has misrepresented the TRG in a desperate attempt to gain credibility for his own misguided plans or indeed lack of plans.

The TRG has been a staunch supporter of David Cameron and the Coalition’s proposals - we were the first group publicly to call for the coalition to be formed. We have long supported reform of our public services to improve service delivery and standards.

Competition is vital to that reform. Miliband’s opposition to competition - cloaked as it is in protests about the costs of structural change - just demonstrates his utter failure to grasp the magnitude of the issues facing our NHS. Does he have any proposals on how to tackle the cost of ageing and the cost of inefficiencies? Perhaps his time would be better spent thinking of answers to those questions rather than practising quips drafted for him by his researcher to recite at PMQs.”

PMQs review: Questions surrounding Edward’s leadership remain unanswered

Jack Blackburn 1.20pm

The battlelines for this week’s PMQs were bizarre. In theory, it should have been a tough day for the Prime Minister, given the overall rise in unemployment which had been announced earlier.

However, he was up against a Leader of the Opposition who has spent most of the past month doing a Norma Desmond impression in order to defend his record: “I am big. It’s the party that’s got small.”

In short, Dave needed to mount a fierce defence of the Government’s employment policies and Edward needed to deliver a knockout performance.

So, Dave had combed the figures to find anything positive. And to be fair, he did. There was a decrease in long-term unemployment and the number of young people who had been out of work for more than 12 months was also down. With the endless lists of government initiatives designed to create more jobs, there was some ammunition for him to use. However, when the economic climate is grim, it should - I repeat, should - be very hard for the Prime Minister to win an exchange such as the one he was faced with today.

Enter Edward Miliband. As with last week, we saw the calmer Edward, trying to not be preachy, screechy and, crucially, not attempting humour.

However, Edward’s problems have not just been presentational. They have also been strategic, and the element which was highlighted today was his lack of policy detail. Generally, Edward selects figures that are bad for the Government and seems to expect them to carry him through.

Increasingly, although he is becoming steadier, Edward still sounds like a biased newsreader, relating all of the government’s woes to the House without having the guts to suggest any hard policy in the chamber. Very soon he will discover that saying that the government is wrong is not enough. We still have no idea what Edward would do about it.

That perennial issue aside, this session remained in the balance. The Prime Minister had a couple of lines up his sleeve and managed to land some punches, executing a sturdy defence. He was still vulnerable because the news remained poor at its heart, no matter how many little positives he drew out of it. Edward didn’t have the ability to exploit this weakness at all. The questions surrounding his leadership remain utterly unanswered.

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