David Cameron has started to haunt the dreams of Labour MPs. Pamela Nash (Lab, Airdrie and Shotts) told the House: “I’m afraid I might have nightmares tonight about the Prime Minister modelling Speedos on his world tour.” She said this in an amused tone, after Cameron had said “we were pushing Speedos as hard as we could” on his visit to China.
Cameron kept his tone light in reply, by assuring her that Speedos also make shorts. But for the rest of the time, his tone was anything but light. He and his backbenchers displayed a merciless and systematic triumphalism about the employment figures.
For Labour MPs this is a nightmare: a patrician Tory who with cruel deliberation and shameless self-confidence walks all over the Leader of the Opposition while boasting over and over again about how brilliantly the Conservatives are running the economy. To them it must be like being beaten up by a Bertie Wooster figure who turns out to be both clever and brutal.
The Prime Minister mocked Ed Miliband for not saying a word about the two million more people in work in the private sector, and added in a contemptuous tone: “He’s actually allergic to good news because he knows that as the economy gets stronger, he gets weaker.”
Miliband is beginning to wear a haunted look. He did indeed avoid the economy, and tried instead to make something of the Birmingham schools row, by asking where parents could go to get problems sorted out. Cameron was ready for this. He replied that they could go to the head teacher, the chair of governors and if necessary to Ofsted, who would in future be able to mount unannounced inspections.
The Prime Minister proceeded to pour scorn on Miliband’s call for “a proper system of local oversight”, saying this just sounded “like creating a new local bureaucracy”. Miliband was unable to get anywhere, either on schools or delays in issuing passports. He looked unhappy, and so for most of the time did his backbenchers, who were not packed in as tightly as one might have expected. For while the Tories repeated, with dreary but effective unanimity, the two million figure, Labour lacked any cry around which they could unite.
Members of the Labour awkward squad continued to yell defiance at the Prime Minister, but no one could think of something to say which would puncture his ineffable self-assurance. The Speaker, John Bercow, rebuked Ian Lucas (Lab, Wrexham) for shouting, telling him that “you need to go on some sort of therapeutic training course if you are to achieve the level of statesmanship to which you aspire”.
But this was an unhappy half-hour for Labour. When Mike Kane (Lab, Wythenshawe and Sale East) ventured to ask about Cabinet splits, Cameron came back with a line he would no doubt have used if Miliband had touched on this subject, first boasting that senior ministers have achieved so much because they have been left in post for four years, and then concluding: “If you’ve got a strong team with a strong plan, stick with the team, stick with the plan, and keep on putting it in the back of the net.”
At the end of these exchanges, Robert Jenrick, victor of the Newark by-election, took his seat. Here was another Tory who looked insufferably pleased with himself, and had reason to do so. One would not blame Miliband if he wakes in the middle of the night, screaming at the memory.