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Miliband uses third parties as shield behind which to advance at PMQs

by Paul Goodman

What do you do at PMQs if you're a Leader of the Opposition in trouble?

Answer: If you're Ed Miliband, you mug up on an interest groups' view of a particular benefit detail - given that a welfare bill's being debated that same day - and hope that the Prime Minister isn't the master of it.

What do you do at PMQs if you're a Prime Minister facing a Leader of the Opposition in trouble?

Answer: If you're David Cameron, thank your lucky stars that the lobby's focus is on your opposite number, not you, and come armed with some helpful quotes from Tony Blair.

So what happened?

The issue at stake was benefit changes and cancer victims.  Miliband had the chance to choose the battleground: that's an advantage that a Leader of the Opposition has at PMQs (and there aren't many others).

Cameron's not as bad at detail as some of his critics make out, but he wouldn't have known in advantage what subject Miliband was going on, let alone what aspect of it.  He retreated behind the brief given to him by civil servants; Miliband advanced behind those assembled by the lobby groups.  We'll see who's right.

Shouting and waving his arms didn't suit Miliband.  He'd clearly pumped himself up to turn in a more macho performance than last week.  But accusing Miliband of putting up a "smokescreen" was a mistake by Cameron.  It allowed his opponent to accuse him of not taking the plight of cancer victims seriously.

Cameron got his soundbite in - describing Miliband as the "weak leader of a divided party" (he liked it so much he used it twice).  But the lesson from today's PMQs is as ancient as the hills: when a leader's in trouble, PMQs almost never deals him a fresh wound, let alone finishes him off.

There are weeks in which Cameron gets difficult questions from his side of the chamber.  This wasn't one of them, although were I him I'd be keeping a particular eye on energy costs and women's pensions, both of which came up.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) asked a strongly supportive question at the end of PMQs about overseas aid.  It seems to have surprised some members of the lobby, but shouldn't have done.  They should check back on the comment section of ConservativeHome.

1.30pm Update Guido Fawkes is suggesting that MacMillan are complicit in a pre-planned operation with Miliband - since Mike Hobday from MacMillan, a former Labour staffer and councillor, from Macmillan was on the Daily Politics defending Miliband’s use of their figures.  Hobday just admitted to Sky that he was "pre-warned".


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