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Miliband buries himself during a ghoulish session of PMQs

By Peter Hoskin
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Europe, wind farms, Trident, boundaries — this Halloween edition of PMQs promised to be rather gruesome for David Cameron, and that’s how it seemed for the opening five minutes or so.

The first question, from Andrew Stephenson, was about the EU Budget. And although it was one of those friendly inquiries of the sort “Does the Prime Minister agree with the Prime Minister’s policy?”, it also suggested just how nervous the Tory leadership is about tonight’s vote. The PM’s answer was designed to ward off any knives pointed at his back.

But then Ed Miliband popped up in front, with a knife of his own. The Labour leader had unearthed a question that Mr Cameron asked of Gordon Brown, only four months before the last election. “At a time when budgets are being cut in the UK,” the quoted question began, “does the Prime Minister agree, when reviewing the EU Budget, the main purpose must be to push for a real-terms cut?” Eek. Surely Mr Cameron would end up on the ropes.

Except he didn’t. Practically from that moment on, the contest flipped on its head. Mr Cameron was dogged rather than sparkling in his responses to Mr Miliband — insistently pointing out how, for instance, it was Labour who signed away a good portion of Britain’s rebate — yet he didn’t need to do anything more. The Labour leader just lacked bite. His questions became long-winded and muddy, much like the jokes made from all sides.

This was particularly true of Mr Miliband’s second set of questions, about the Heseltine review and wind farms. He started off by welcoming last week’s growth figures, which he probably had too, but it sucked much of the venom from what followed. The Lord Heseltine quotes that the Labour leader produced? Mr Cameron just batted them away with some Lord Heseltine quotes of his own, as well as with criticism of Labour’s reluctance to discuss the “big issues”. The question on wind farms? Does Mr Cameron back John Hayes or Ed Davey? That was fended off with the simple observation that there has been “more investment in renewable energy in the three years of this government than in 13 years under Labour.” And Mr Cameron also added that the government’s policy hasn’t changed, which will probably relieve the Lib Dems.

Mr Miliband was left having to refer back, in a particularly long question, to the contents of the Heseltine review. I found it difficult to tune in at that point.

As for the backbench questions, the one that provoked the most oohs and aahs was Chris Bryant’s. The Labour MP demanded an answer — which was refused to him a couple of weeks ago — on the subject of the Prime Minister’s communications with Rebekah Brooks. And, this time, he got one: “It is this government that set up the Leveson inquiry, and I gave all the information that Leveson asked for to that inquiry.”

Even punchier was Mr Cameron’s response to another Labour backbencher, on a question about child benefit cuts. “I don’t see why the front-bench sitting there,” he said pointing in the direction of Eds Milband and Balls, “should go on picking up their child benefit when we’re having to make difficult decisions.” Although it’s still a pity that the PM doesn’t apply the same thinking in the case of other universal benefits, and cut them before the next election.

Overall, this was a drab PMQs. Neither leader was brilliant, although Ed Miliband was worse — and that helped Mr Cameron to victory. Yet that victory will be a particular treat for No.10, given the tricks the Labour leader might have deployed. Now something else wicked this way comes: the EU budget vote.


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