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By Peter Hoskin
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First
of all, today’s PMQs was an extremely rowdy and red-faced affair — even more so
than usual. Questions had to be shouted over the din. Ed Miliband called David
Cameron “the boy from the Bullingdon Club”, to cheers from his own side. Mr
Cameron suggested that the Labour leader had caught Ed Balls’s disease of “not
being able to keep his mouth shut for five seconds”, to cheers from his. Mr
Balls kept on waving a piece in the Prime Minister’s face. And so on.

But
this doesn’t mean that the session was all heat, no light. To the contrary, what
we saw was an argument that will, most likely, be one of the most significant
of this Parliament and of the next election campaign. That argument was over
benefits.

Mr
Miliband set it up with his second question: how many of the people affected by
last week’s cap on rising benefit spending are actually in work? His aim was to
wheedle out of the Prime Minister an admission that the policy wouldn’t just
hit the unemployed but also those “strivers,” as he called them, on in-work
benefits. He strengthened that implied message with some forceful rhetoric (“It’s
the cleaner who is cleaning the Chancellor’s office while the Chancellor’s
curtains are still drawn”) and a chart from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggesting
that working families are now £534 a year worse off.


To
start off with, Mr Cameron’s answers were rather muddy. But then he warmed to a
theme: that, yes, in-work benefits would be hit, but that a) this was necessary
to deal with the deficit, and b) working people would also be compensated by
cuts the income tax threshold and, eventually, by the Universal Credit, which
the IFS table doesn’t account for. “His is the party of unlimited welfare,” he
said, pointing in Mr Miliband’s direction. “A party that isn’t serious about
controlling welfare isn’t serious about controlling the deficit either.”

It
was in an answer to the new Labour backbencher Lucy Powell that Mr Cameron was
at his clearest. The Coalition benches, he said, believe in cutting the taxes
of those in work, rather than taking that money off them and redistributing it
back through an unwieldy tax credits system. “That's what we're doing and
there'll be more of it to come,” he finished.

It’s
hard to say which leader really won this exchange, and not just because both were
punchy and well-briefed, but also because this was a dividing line plain and
simple: a point of principle that allows no concession to the other side. Which
side of the argument has triumphed will emerge more clearly after the next election,
rather than on a frozen December afternoon in 2012.

There
was time remaining for questions from, among others, Dennis Skinner (on the
Communications  Data Bill), Bill Cash (on
Europe) and Andrew Tyrie (on “secret courts”) — but, really, all the energy of
this PMQs, as well as the main answers of interest, were expended on benefits. And
then, thankfully, the House quietened down for David Cameron’s statement on the
murder of Pat Finucane. We shall have the text or video of that statement up on
the site shortly.

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