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By Peter Hoskin
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Watching
the exchange between David Cameron and Ed Miliband in PMQs today, you’d be
forgiven for thinking: haven’t we been here before? On one side, we had the
Labour leader attacking the Coalition for its fiscal policy and the effect, he
claims, it is having on growth. On the other, the Prime Minister defending the
Coalition’s economic record and slamming Labour for both their legacy and their
free-borrowing attitude since. Almost all of the reference points were
familiar: “what a complacent answer”, “one million jobs in the private sector”,
“borrowing £212 billion more than he anticipated”, “the deficit is down by a
quarter,” and so on and so on. It was difficult to stay tuned in.   

Yet
there were some small differences from what has gone before. For starters, both
Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband managed to distil their attacks into new sound-bites—“Labour has a three point plan: more spending, more borrowing, more
debt,” and “The Prime Minister promises a better tomorrow, and tomorrow never
comes,” respectively—that I expect we’ll hear again. And the Labour leader
could also lean on last
week’s growth figures
, as well as the false
claim about debt
made in the Tories’ recent party political broadcast. These
factors made Mr Cameron look relatively uncomfortable overall, and probably
shaded the contest for Mr Miliband.

But
the most striking element of the leaders’ exchange was the time devoted by Mr
Miliband to attacking George Osborne, directly and personally. We’re used to
some of the lines he deployed—“part-time Chancellor”, etc.—but this was much
more concerted than usual. “Perhaps the part-time Chancellor should spend more
time worrying about the economy,” began the Labour leader, “and less time
worrying about diverting high speed rail routes away from his constituency” –
and he would have gone on had the Speaker not then interrupted him. The Prime
Minister was able to deny
the story in question
, but you sense that Labour are targeting Mr Osborne
for a reason and may keep on doing it.  

As
for the backbench questions, a number of themes emerged:

  • Andrew Griffiths urged the PM to scrap the beer duty escalator,
    and received a response that wasn’t entirely unfavourable. “The government has
    plans…” hinted Mr Cameron, which may intrigue those backbenchers currently
    pushing for a “cost
    of living Budget”
    .
  • Richard Drax and Adrian Sanders, a Tory and a Lib Dem, asked questions about cuts to rescue services – specifically, to the coast guard and
    to “search and rescue”. It was a reminder that even Coalition MPs are concerned
    about the impact of fiscal tightening on the business end of the public sector.
  • And, as in the past few weeks, more than one Labour MP frothed
    about Mr Cameron’s “failure to visit a food bank”. The PM answered, to the
    first, that he has plans to do just that – and soon. When the second asked
    exactly the same question it looked… well, a little peculiar.

Mr
Cameron seemed to grow in confidence as the session went on. When Labour’s Alex
Cunningham asked the funniest question of the day—“Is it true that traces of
stalking horse have been found in the Conservative Party food chain?”—it
unsteadied the Prime Minister for a second, before he came back with a sharp
response: “The Conservative Party has always stood up for people who want to
work hard and get on. And I'm glad the people behind me take that very
seriously indeed.”

And
then Mr Cameron ended with a bit of fire. When George Galloway asked why the
Government is attacking the Islamists in Mali but supporting the “equally
bloodthirsty jihadists” in Syria, he replied curtly: “Wherever there is a
brutal Arab dictator in the world, he'll have the support of the honourable member.”
And then there was a warning for those who voted down the border reforms: “Those
who voted in favour of existing constituency boundaries—that are both costly
and unfair—they will have to justify that to their constituents.”

And
with that, the PM’s off to Algeria.

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