Never mind whether, as some Brussels panjandrum claimed this morning, Britain is becoming a “nasty country”. Some of us are more concerned that David Cameron is becoming a nasty Prime Minister.
Today’s performance gave grounds for cautious hope. Cameron sounded less brutish than in recent weeks: less inclined to behave like a boot boy who wants to kick the head of his opponent in.
The Prime Minister instead accused Ed Miliband of “a slight sense of humour failure”. This tone of voice suits Cameron better. It implies he is a man level-headed enough to do what any sane person would do in the circumstances, without worrying about ideology, and without losing sight of the lighter side of life.
Miliband could meanwhile be seen moving his heavy ideological artillery in to position in order to pound Cameron’s lightly defended positions. He accused the Prime Minister of making a “U-turn on payday lending”, and enquired with indignation why Cameron has “moved in two short months from believing that intervening in markets is living in a Marxist universe, to believing it is a solemn duty of government”.
The Prime Minister replied that he was “proud” to have done something about the scourge of payday lending. Miliband observed that this was “not some minor policy adjustment, it is an intellectual collapse of their position”.
The Labour leader is right to make this accusation. He is himself an intellectual, who attaches far greater importance to theory than to practice. And he is aware that many intellectuals of the Right are as affronted as he is by the discrepancy between the Government’s condemnation of Miliband’s plan for an energy price cap, and its embrace of statutory controls on payday lending.
Cameron did what so many British statesmen have done when faced by an intellectual assault on their behaviour. He ignored it. The Prime Minister instead blathered in a pious tone about how “every excess death in the winter is a tragedy”. He pointed out that while last year there were 31,000 such deaths, when Miliband was Energy Secretary “there were 36,500”.
The implication of this remark seemed to be that Miliband was responsible for 5,500 more deaths, or tragedies, than whichever Liberal Democrat now holds the energy brief. This is the kind of low, tasteless and ridiculous argument which those of us who are not intellectuals can understand.
But let us not imagine Cameron emerged unscathed from this encounter. For in a clear sign that he felt wounded, he began accusing his opponent of “intellectual incoherence”. These chaps who read PPE at Oxford, as Cameron and Miliband both did, can be chippy about that sort of thing.