John Harris

Journalist & Author

PMQs – just like an Oxbridge freshers’ week | John Harris

David Cameron may have the cut-glass accent, but Ed Miliband surpassed expectations with his quiet, forensic style

There was a flavour of freshers’ week to today’s PMQs. More specifically – and I have experience here – the first couple of weeks at an Oxbridge college, where ranks of state schoolies come face to face with the swagger and assurance that comes at around £20,000 a year, and wonder how on earth two such different sets of people are going to get on. On one side, complete with insouciant despatch-box leaning style and impeccable delivery, the prime minister; on the other, Ed Miliband, who looked a little more nervous than the instant TV responses have suggested, and with very, very good reason.

As with his conference speech, he surpassed expectations – partly because he seemed to understand that the best counterpoint to David Cameron’s parliamentary style is to be quiet, painfully reasonable and forensic. Gordon Brown, you may recall, tended to respond to any rise in noise by either growling or yelping like a stressed bear, whereas, as he picked his way through his run of questions about the iniquities of the child benefit cut, Miliband stayed calm, enviably focused, and well clear of any silly showmanship. Yes, last week’s CB farrago made for an easy(ish) run, but he had some nice lines – not least, the implied contrast between the cut-glass voices opposite, and the people he said will be feeling the pain: primary school deputy heads; police officers.

Obviously, there will be much, much more of this, as Labour develops its focus on the so-called “squeezed middle” – a much more interesting idea than the name implies. In Australia, the Labor party calls them “the battlers”; in the States, the woes of stagnating middle incomes, rising living costs and harried lifestyles provided the key narrative drive during the contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Here, as the cuts bite, their travails look likely to be raised just about every week – which may rather exclude the predicament of the people really feeling the pinch, but will still cut to the heart of one of our politics’ biggest delusions: that between the poor and rich, there is a largely content, “aspirational” mass whose attention can only be snagged via the dried-up stuff of tax cuts and “personalised” public services.

Cameron had one easy but effective line: hadn’t it been the last government that had so squeezed them? There are two responses to that: that in actual fact, it’s been forces governments have dared go nowhere near that have done most of the squeezing; and that, as the cuts kick in, laying all the opprobrium at the feet of the last regime increasingly won’t wash. So: a pretty compelling occasion, with more than a hint of the battlelines to come. And Cameron looked ever so slightly rattled, didn’t he?


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