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By Peter Hoskin
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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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.