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By Peter Hoskin
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Those
eagerly anticipating a Mitch-hunt in today’s PMQs had to sit waiting for quite
some time. First, there was the tragically long list of fallen troops and policewomen
to be commemorated, as well as the late MPs Malcolm Wicks and Sir Stuart Bell.
And then Ed Miliband led in with questions about today’s employment release. “The
unemployment figures today are welcome, particularly the fall in youth
employment,” he started, before focusing in on the persistently high number of “long
term unemployed”.

But
eventually the hunt descended, bearing torches and pitch forks. Mr Miliband
segued from a question about police numbers to a question about Andrew Mitchell
in one grim step — “they’re not just breaking their promises, it’s their
conduct as well” — and then he stuck at the subject. Almost every attack he
might have used, he did. He quoted Boris to the effect that those who swear at
the police should be banged up. He quoted from the official police report of the
incident. He quipped that “While it’s a night in the cell for the yobs, it’s a
night in the Carlton Club for the Chief Whip”. And he even deployed that old
saw, “It’s one rule for those at the top…”


The
scattershot nature of Miliband’s attacks probably helped David Cameron — and Mr
Mitchell. As Kevin Maguire has said,
the Labour leader might have caused more damage by focusing on one aspect of
the story, such as what was actually said on the evening at hand. But, as it was, Mr Cameron was able
to deflect the piecemeal questions with a one-size-fits-all response: the Chief Whip
has rightly apologised, had his apology accepted, and Labour ought to move on to
more important issues. The session was probably more comfortable than the Prime
Minster expected.

Which isn’t to say that Mr Cameron “won” this PMQs. In the end, the Mitchell story is
never going to play well for the Tories, whenever it’s aired. But it’s just
that Mr Miliband scraped a victory, where he might have romped to one.

The
Chief Whip didn’t feature half as much in the backbench questions, although
Labour’s Kevin Brennan did bring up the aid money that Mr Mitchell dispatched
to Rwanda in his final days as International Development Secretary. The PM
dealt with this line of attack confidently enough, saying that “I continue to
believe in investing in Rwanda’s success,” and that “we should be very frank
and very firm” with President Kagame about what this money is for.

More
interesting were some of the non-Mitchell leitmotifs that emerged from the
backbenches. The subject of our nuclear deterrent featured several times,
including in a question from the Lib Dem MP Nick Harvey, who was deposed as a MoD minister
at the last reshuffle. Hinting at what might become a precipitous fault-line
between the two Coalition partners, he urged Mr Cameron to “Keep an open mind
on how exactly to replace our nuclear deterrent.” But Mr Cameron didn’t sound
much up for budging, saying that the deterrent has to be “credible,” otherwise
it won’t act as a deterrent at all.

And
Mr Cameron sounded similarly set in his thinking when it came to Europe. “I
don’t want an in-out referendum because I’m not happy with us leaving Europe,” he
said. It is a referendum on a renegotiated settlement between Britain and
Europe that will “be going in our manifesto”.

From
the Labour benches, there was much spikiness. It began with Willie Bain pushing
Ed Miliband’s subverted One Nation theme, and calling Mr Cameron a “divisive Prime
Minister”. And it continued with an extraordinary exchange in which Chris
Bryant probed the PM about his communications with Rebekah Brooks. “When the
truth comes out the Prime Minister won’t be smiling,” quivered Bryant. But Mr
Cameron quivered just as much in return, chiding the Labour MP for previously
quoting
from some Leveson documents that were under embargo at the time. “Until
he apologises, I’m not going to be answering his questions,” said the PM, not
altogether wisely.

And
as for Tory backbench questions, the most ear-catching were Nadine Dorries’ on
planning laws and Andrew Bridgen's on Labour’s misleading campaign in Corby. But
the television camera really only had eyes for one Tory MP that wasn’t the Prime
Minister, and that was Andrew Mitchell. The Chief Whip looked uncomfortable
throughout, perched next to Andrew Lansley, although he issued a note of defiance by — it seems — claiming that he didn't swear during his rant at a police officer. The story now has a new turn to take, and the hunt will surely follow.

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