I watched PMQs for the first time in a while today and was stunned at how weak David Cameron came across.
Usually when you watch PMQs you get a lot of people saying your own guy was great, while the other guy was weak, but you can generally tell the most from the reaction of the MPs both in front of and behind the party leader.
Even when Cameron’s jokes are bad, for instance, he used to get a good laugh from the MPs behind him. His attacks, while at times completely irrelevant to the actual question asked and often duplicitous in the extreme, would also find a roar of approval.
Meanwhile for Ed Miliband, his jokes and attacks would be jeered viciously by the Tory backbenchers (nothing wrong with that per se, it’s all part of the combat of PMQs) while Labour MPs would sometimes struggle to raise much cheer and it often came across as half-hearted. This simply reflects the morale of the MPs, who pay close attention to the polls and the response they get when speaking to constituents (the idea that all MPs are grossly out of touch is always something of a myth. Some are. Most aren’t).
Watching PMQs for the first time in a couple of months, in which time Cameron has suffered the biggest drop in personal ratings ever apart from Gordon Brown, and is now more unpopular than Brown was in the run up to the last General Election and indeed more unpopular than Ed Miliband, I was struck by the change in atmosphere in the House of Commons.
Aside from the genuinely funny exchange about mobile phones, where Miliband skewered Cameron over his texting of Rebekah Brooks and signing off with ‘LOL’ and Cameron retorted with a funny line (that even Miliband burst out laughing to) about Gordon Brown throwing mobile phones at his staff, pretty much every joke Cameron tried to deliver fell flat, including a dreadful line about how Miliband was having a ‘bad day’ that even his most loyal backbenchers couldn’t raise a titter at.
Meanwhile, Miliband dominated the despatch box in a confident manner, continuing to ad-lib while sorting his sheets in front of him and getting large cheers from his backbenchers as question after question hit their mark.
It wasn’t all one way traffic by any means, Miliband’s comments about Cameron getting training for his appearance at the Leveson inquiry fell flat as Tory MPs jeered him for bringing it up, which seemed to nonpluss him momentarily, and Cameron’s line about Gordon Brown throwing phones was probably the funniest of the session.
Nonetheless I was surprised at the change in atmosphere. Cameron’s excuses have stopped working. Earlier in his premiership it looked like he might have a Blair-like teflon coating, where criticisms bounce off where they would find the mark on lesser politicians. Other politicians, like Gordon Brown or John Major, often had the reverse issue when Prime Minister, where every criticism would stick like glue regardless of how fair they were. Watching Cameron today it felt like whatever teflon coating he had has well and truly come off.
Listing all the things the government has done to get growth while we’re in a double dip recession, avoided in the Eurozone, looks complacent and nonsensical. Bringing up people like Alistair Campbell at every opportunity, as if that somehow wins the argument, doesn’t even raise a cheer from his own disgruntled backbenchers anymore. It’s old newsand even his own backbenchers are bored of him rolling out the ‘it’s all your fault’ line after two years in the job.
None of the events of recent weeks since the government’s disastrous budget means Labour is somehow walking to victory at the next General Election, or even that we have become favourites to win.
However it has opened up a space, an opportunity to be heard that Miliband looks aware he needs to take.
There’s a lot of work to do but I’m more optimistic now than at any time since the last election.