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Miliband is finding a gambit that works

By Paul Goodman
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After last week's PMQs, I reminded readers of the two main party leaders' different aims during the half an hour session.

Cameron's is to keep the exchanges broad, so that he can attack Miliband for being "the weak leader of a divided party" (and prod away at the tense relations between Miliband and Ed Balls).

Miliband's is to keep them narrow, so that he can try to catch the Prime Minister out on points of detail.

Two weeks of PMQs out of what may be five years proves nothing, but the Labour leader may at last be finding ways of making the latter approach work for him.

In a first set of three questions, he raised the concerns voiced by two senior military figures this week about the costs and feasibility of the Libya engagement, and ended by rebuking Cameron for his own reproof of the RAF's operations chief (and others) yesterday.  Intriguingly, the Prime Minister said that there wouldn't be a "total reopening" of the defence review - will there therefore be a partial review? - and was left little room by Miliband for a counter-attack (though Cameron was able to raise Labour's failure to hold such a review at all).

In his second set, Miliband used the view of Rape Crisis about rape suspects and DNA data in much the same way that he used MacMillan Cancer Support's view about benefit changes last week.  We'll see who's right about the detail in due course.  But Miliband sounded better briefed - not hard when you've chosen the subject for discussion - and had an effective come-back line when the Prime Minister, in response to taunts about his having to seek Theresa May's whispered briefing, said that at least members of this government talk to each other.  The Labour leader came back quickly to argue that they should talk before decisions are made, not afterwards.

Three other quick observations:

  • The Prime Minister said in reply to a question from Douglas Carswell about bailouts that he was pursuing the issue with "his normal dogged tenacity".  This is Cameron's way of making it clear that, in his view, Carswell is a swivel-eyed obsessive.  While Carswell operates in effect as a semi-independent - which must get the Prime Minister's goat - the patronising put-down reflected less well on Cameron than on him.  Prime Ministers should be above that sort of thing.
  • Rather overbearing chairing by Bercow, who pulled Cameron up when he sought to make a general attack on Miliband (perhaps understandably), cut short Marcus Jones (again, perhaps correctly, but Tories grumble that Labour MPs get more leeway), and tried a joke about marbles (which reinforced the impression that the Speaker wants to hog the limelight).  The Prime Minister was quick to say that we won't be losing them - a small sign that, although Miliband is putting him under pressure at PMQs, he's staying unruffled, and quick on his feet.
  • The marbles?  Well, Andrew George's solution to the Greek crisis is to give Greece the Elgin marbles.  Angie Bray's - made clear at very start of PMQs - is not give it taxpayers' money.  What a wonderful work of harmony the coalition is.


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