PMQs: Bloodbath edition
With the millstone of Mitchell round Cameron’s neck, Ed should have walked PMQs today - instead, he only just edged it, writes our UK Political Editor Harry Cole
Well that was a bloodbath.
Thanks to the joys of conference season we have not had a head-to-head between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for some time, but that’s not to say they have not been tearing strips off each other across the airwaves and conference halls.
They wasted no time in getting down and dirty at the despatch box though for a vintage mutual carpet bombing.
Hours after the last Prime Minister’s Questions, Tory Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell got into his fateful row with the Downing Street police and the fallout is still blighting the government. This is not where Cameron intended to be right now. The reshuffle was meant to move the government on from a dodgy six months and if the (whisper it) green shoots of recovery are anything to go by, Cameron should have been on the front foot today.
The first few bouts were his, thanks to decent employment figures which have led to almost continuous good news month on month. Miliband had Mitchell up his sleeve but was facing a barrage of ‘bad news’ in his eyes, i.e. good news for the rest of the country and for the economic recovery.
Thanks to immigration, employment has reached a record 29.5 million. But again, unemployment fell this quarter - by an impressive 50,000. The unemployed rate is down from 8.1 to 7.9 percent.
And if that was not enough, youth unemployment, one of Miliband’s favourite weapons, is also falling and dipped below a million today for the first time in over twelve months. The Shadow Chancellor was unusually but unsurprisingly subdued today and looked as sick as a dog for the first few questions from his boss.
Through gritted teeth Ed Miliband uttered the painful words that undermine Labour’s entire economic message. Apparently these figures should be “welcomed - particularly the fall in youth unemployment”. Ed’s face looked about as welcoming as a BBC executive presented with a Newsnight investigation in celebrity paedophilia.
This should have been Dave’s day. Although he had some good one liners later on (“the Leader of the Opposition is marching with his union paymasters this weekend. Looks like it'll be the most lucrative sponsored walk ever!” et cetera), as soon as Ed moved the questioning around, the House erupted.
Then, tactically, Ed blundered as he he framed his Mitchell questions awkwardly, presumably for fear of looking too nakedly political. Using the cover of police cuts may have initially seemed like a good idea, but the blow failed to land as effectively as Ed would have liked, despite Mitchell's palpable nod and grimace.
This simply reminded Tories why the Police Federation are so desperate for Mitchell’s scalp. This is no longer about the incident but rather a deeply politicised union - in everything but name - trying to point score with a government that is cutting their numbers. It was as if Ed was trying to rally the Tories around his target. But the worst tactical blunders were still to come.
Though the cameras did not catch it, Miliband claims "he says he didn't swear from a sedentary position. Maybe he'll tell us what he did say". By seeming to engage, the Chief Whip has reignited the row, especially given that he admitted swearing by briefing the Sunday Telegraph three weeks ago. By the time Miliband was trotting out his well practiced and admittedly funny lines, Mitchell’s face was ashen. He was shooting daggers.
“It’s a night in the cells for yobs, a night in the Carlton club for the Chief Whip!”
Nice, but true to style Ed could not keep up the competent performance. He’s going to look very silly with his claims that Mitchell is toast, especially as it looks like he’s going to dig in and stay now. Though that does have it’s advantages for Ed, you can’t help recall all those other times he prematurely called for sackings. Not least his call for Ken Clarke’s head in 2011.
Miliband’s final blunder was not thinking quick enough in adapting his final practiced flourish: “Everyone losing their jobs while the chief whip keep his”. Quick as a flash Dave was able to land a quick blow having noticed this line was clearly scripted and done in the mirror well before this morning’s jobs figures.
Though the Mitchell bashing will take the headlines, there were two later incidents of note that deserve a footnote on the record.
With a glint in his eye Cameron laughed and teased Ed Balls about his future in opposition: “that’s why you’re over there and you going to be for a very, very long time - get yourself comfortable". Labour claims that Ed Balls gets under the PMs skin and makes him snap, but Cameron knows his benches love it and he sat down to cries of "mooooore!"
Balls should take a leaf out of Chris Bryant's book if he really wants to niggle the Prime Minister. There was an almost astonishing scene towards the close of play where Dave refused to answer a question from his known enemy Bryant.
Given the patronising tone the Rhondda Labour MP took, it’s no surprise that Cameron got snappy and demanded an apology from Bryant for smearing him during the Leveson Inquiry. Given the nature of said question however - emails and texts to Rebekah Brooks - it looked dangerously like Cameron had something to hide. That’s how you start a conspiracy theory Prime Minister.
It was bloody on both sides but with the millstone of Mitchell round Cameron’s neck, Ed should have walked it.
He may have edged it, just, but it’s very telling that the Leader of the Opposition who could be just 24 months out of Number 10 was unable to wipe the floor given the Mitchell-shaped Damoclean sword hanging above the Prime Minister.
Harry Cole is the UK Political Editor for The Commentator
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