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PMQs: Miliband paints Cameron as a weak leader. The merits of the argument weren't on his side. But the politics was.

By Paul Goodman
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The British people are among the most Euro-sceptic in the EU.  It follows that Labour's take on the EU project is less aligned to their view than the Conservative one.  Ed Miliband is against attempts to repatriate powers. He is opposed to a referendum.  He hasn't ruled out a Labour Government joining the Euro.  So what on earth was he doing raising an issue at Prime Minister's Questions today over which his instincts are at odds with those of most voters ?

The answer is he would give, were he being candid, is: never mind the issues, stick to the politics.  Labour has its own differences on EU policy.  But on what we might call the Michael Gove question - were there an In/Out referendum now, how would you vote? - it is less diverse than within the Conservative Party, including the Cabinet: James Forsyth recently reminded Spectator readers that "at least nine Cabinet members would be inclined to vote ‘out’ in the referendum".

Miliband was thus swooping on the story that the Daily Mail is now highlighting about David Cameron offering Conservative Cabinet members and other Ministers a free vote in the event of a referendum in the next Parliament.  The Prime Minister would have no other choice in such circumstances, and nor would Miliband (in the unlikely event of any Labour Cabinet Minister wanting Out).  It took the Labour leader until the fifth of his six questions to raise the matter, but when he did Cameron had no answer whatsoever.  He simply didn't want to acknowledge the differences among Tory Cabinet members.

Miliband thus ended the session making the point he wanted to make all along - that the Prime Minister is a weak leader.  Had he asked his fifth question first - and kept on asking it - he would have achieved a knockout win today.  But he wanted instead to cite Michael Heseltine's views, point out that Cameron and Hague voted against a referendum in the Commons last year, and warn that an EU exit would leave Britain "closed for business" he missed his chance.

As it is, he probably won the exchanges on points, despite Cameron having the better of the arguments.  The Prime Minister all but used the "R" word, alluding to consulting the public and gaining the "full-hearted consent of the British people".  His insistence that a Conservative Government would want to take powers back from Brussels, and that a Labour Government would give more away, was right.  But my sense is that to the lay voter hinting that you want a referendum in future while arguing that you don't want one now looks muddled.

Downing Street must be anxious about women's votes.  From the Tory backbenches, John Glen raised the gain which the Government's proposed pension reforms will bring to some women, and Mary Macleod plugged childcare: I may be wrong, but both questions had the smell of the Whips' Office about them. Laura Sandys asked about the great horsemeat scandal.  Cue the Rebekah Brooks jokes.

Gary Streeter, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and Gareth Johnson all asked locally-based questions, showing in the process that it's hard to go wrong at PMQs with a well-turned point about one's constituency.  I have enjoyed Douglas Carswell provoking ideas for his PMQ question via Twitter this morning.  The venture is probably unnecessary, since he seems to have an unending supply of his own to put Ministers on the spot - such as the one he posed about the Government's commitment to Open Primaries. Cameron suddenly began to talk very fast.

Finally, a big shout-out for my successor in Wycombe, Steve Baker, who made the simple but important point that the views of the CBI and those of British business aren't necessarily, or even often, to be confused.


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