And so it comes to an end. For the final time in their current roles, David Cameron and Ed Miliband squared-off at the Despatch Box. As ever, our PMQs Panel was on hand…
I don’t think you can necessarily blame Ed Miliband for being wrong-footed by the Prime Minister in today’s final edition of PMQs before the election. After all, the PM has spent five years of these exchanges attempting to avoid Ed Miliband’s questions and choosing to answer his own (and he did so for five of the six today – or at least diverted questions back to Miliband), but his solitary answer today could not have been more definitive, or better timed.
It was an impressive set-up by CCHQ, no doubt about that. Labour went very big on the offensive this week with a huge co-ordinated campaign on the Conservatives ‘plans’ to increase VAT, and George Osborne was only too happy to fan the flames, refusing to rule it out at a Treasury Select Committee hearing. Of course, the end goal was always to hang Miliband out to dry when it came to PMQs and there was untold glee from the Tory backbenchers as Cameron firmly stated in answer to the Leader of the Opposition that the Tories will not raise VAT. What followed was essentially irrelevant, entirely as CCHQ will have planned, because the key sound-bite was there and ‘another Labour fox shot’ etc. Miliband’s stock response that it’s all ‘Tory lies’ which cannot be believed is his safety blanket (it was surprising that he didn’t bring up the Bullingdon Club which is his usual go-to) but I genuinely don’t think even he believed in himself today. It does seem quite surprising that no-one in the Labour prep team had thought the PM might actually say yes…
There will be many left wondering why Cameron isn’t debating Miliband one-on-one when he has the ability to so comprehensively beat him as today, but a key ingredient in his success is the political theatre of PMQs. The format suits Cameron much more than it does Miliband and it is suited to the political skulduggery that allows tricks like today to be pulled off (the loud roars after a good line) – a debate in a less febrile atmosphere plays much more into cerebral Miliband’s hands and that is a risk that it seems that CCHQ just doesn’t see a net value in taking.
So, a victorious end to PMQs for Cameron. There are many who sit on Twitter and de-cry the spectacle (whilst still commenting about it – although mostly about how much they hate watching it), but with change in the air in Westminster, I already can’t wait for the next two gladiators, whoever they may be, to take to the despatch box.
Today’s was a fiery back-and-forth between Ed and Dave. Whilst usually the first to criticize Cameron, his performance today and reaction under scrutiny from the opposition was certainly robust. I’ll first address the positive before straying back to my regular territory of critiquing Cameron.
The formal apology by the PM for the contamination of blood with Hepatitis C and HIV, with the promise of £25m to support those affected, was absolutely the right response and delivered with relative humility by Cameron. Coming in the wake of the Penrose Report it was a welcome admission of error and handled well by the PM.
The second notable announcement today was the PM’s confident commitment to ruling out any rise in VAT, should the Conservatives be voted in on May 7th. Perhaps this was a clear ‘win’ for Cameron who was able to, for once, directly answer a question and gain the upper hand. I would argue, however, that Miliband’s rebuttal which addressed the track record of Conservative promises made in the run up to elections was sadly compelling. Ed needed only to namedrop the NHS and the 2010 Conservative’s promises about this, to cause the already sceptical viewer to be underwhelmed by the seemingly grand promise on VAT.
What to say about the final PMQs of this parliament? Is there anything new to say – that hasn’t been repeated in this blog myriad times previously? There was shouting. There were (surprisingly!) some actual answers. But many more off-topic slogans. Who knows, this could even be the end of an era: PMQs may not even continue in its current form – especially if Labour is in power post-May.
There was perhaps one first (or at least a rarity) in today’s edition: what must be David Cameron’s shortest, most to the point, actually-answering-the-question answer. When asked by Miliband if the Tories would commit to ruling out a rise in VAT, Cameron did just that, and said – quite simply – “yes”.
What was staggering – and what served to emphasise the infrequency of ‘straight answers’ – was quite how much it wrong-footed Miliband who clearly wasn’t expecting it. Still, the Labour press team had cleverly prepared for the eventuality (what other near-impossible scenario planning do they get up to I wonder?) by arming Labour MP Hugh Bayley with a 2010 cutting where Cameron had also ruled out a VAT rise, only to renege on the promise later.
Beyond that pleasantly engaging interlude there was very little else to report. As can only be expected from the final PMQs before the election, it was dominated by the respective leaders leading on their parties strong suits. As has been the case for quite some time now we got ‘economy, jobs, economy’ from the Conservatives VS ‘NHS, party of the rich, NHS’ from Labour.
If only we had a political leader and party who was brave enough to try and appeal to voters outside of their comfort zone, on issues not traditionally seen as ‘safe’ for them: that would truly make for an interesting spectacle. Alas, it doesn’t look likely any time soon.