In a magnificent display of faith in his own judgment, the Prime Minister today ignored various tactful suggestions by this column about the tone he should adopt towards the Leader of the Opposition. We had ventured to hint that it might be better to treat Ed Miliband as a figure of fun rather than to sneer at him. We had implied that open contempt, rather than an amused shake of the head at such misguidedness, could have the unfortunate effect of making David Cameron appear, to some spectators, a rather unpleasant individual, for whom they would not willingly vote. And we seem to remember, at least in the distant past, expressing the wish that he would keep his family out of these exchanges.
Mr Cameron is made of sterner stuff. His final words to Mr Miliband, uttered with an unmistakeable sneer, were as follows: “Well I’ve got a hard truth for him: he’s not remotely up to the job.” As if that were not unedifying enough, it had been preceded by the indignant protest, “I don’t need lectures from anyone about looking after disabled people”, which was a reference to the Prime Minister’s late son. If the logic behind this remark were correct, it would be wrong to attack a politician who has himself been unemployed for not doing enough about unemployment. But personal suffering, however intense, is no excuse for shutting down political argument.
Mr Miliband had momentarily discomfited Mr Cameron by quoting something Lord Freud, a welfare minister, had said about paying only two pounds an hour to disabled people. Some of us at once suspected these remarks had been misconstrued. Mr Cameron’s response seemed not only tasteless but excessive: it flattered Mr Miliband by making his attack seem more damaging than it really was.
The Leader of the Opposition was suffering from a sore throat. After alluding to the bits that were missing from Mr Miliband’s conference speech, Mr Cameron went on: “If he gets a doctor’s appointment we do hope he doesn’t forget it.” That is more the way to treat the poor fellow.
The Labour leader retorted that while he’d lost “a couple of paragraphs in my speech”, since they last met Mr Cameron had lost “a couple of his Members of Parliament”. And there, clearly visible on the Opposition benches, was Douglas Carswell, formerly the Conservative and now the UKIP member for Clacton.
Mr Carswell rose and fixed the Prime Minister with the stern and incorruptible glare which is so pleasing to the electors of Clacton, though to some of us looks naive to the point of madness. He invited Mr Cameron to back “real recall” of MPs, “in order to honour the promise on which he sought election in 2010”.
Mr Cameron gave an emollient reply, in which he indicated that he might be prepared to go further on the question of recall. The last thing he wants to do is to encourage any more Conservative MPs to follow the two who have just jumped ship. Between now and next May, we can expect the Prime Minister to treat UKIP’s policies with much greater respect than he treats Mr Miliband.