Send for Major Jarvis. There is something reassuring in the very name: a note of English understatement. Was not Labour’s greatest leader called Major Attlee, who was known for never showing off, and won a general election against the mighty Winston Churchill?
Dan Jarvis (Lab, Barnsley Central) asked some question so unremarkable that half an hour later one cannot remember much about it. But this former officer in the Parachute Regiment was heard with respect. He has the indefinable quality of “presence”: one feels somehow that he is not going to let one down. He served in Afghanistan, and also with General Sir Mike Jackson in Kosovo, when that great warrior turned down an excitable American request to “start world war three”.
Major Jarvis was not confrontational. He just wanted the Prime Minister to fulfil a promise to help some company in his constituency to obtain some work it needs. And David Cameron naturally said he would do all he could to help. One glimpsed a form of politics where sensible leaders do business in an unvainglorious, unchippy, unassuming but reassuring tone of voice. No wonder some people want to wreck Major Jarvis’s life by making him the next leader of the Labour Party.
The present Labour leader had an even unhappier time than usual. It was like watching a brave rabbit being chased round the garden by a well-bred dog whose primitive blood lust has been roused. The rabbit did his best to stand up to the dog, but it was useless. Ed Miliband is just not suited to this kind of battle. He would be far happier sitting at home in his cosy, book-lined burrow, surrounded by sub-Marxist works of political theory and wondering what minor contribution to that genre to make himself.
The rabbit strove to avoid being torn to pieces by hiding behind the hedge, or on this occasion behind the hedge funds. Miliband asked the same question over and over again about a tax privilege which according to him, the wicked hedge funds enjoy. Not one in a thousand of his listeners will have known whether the point he was making was correct. Cameron himself may well not have known. But the Prime Minister ignored Miliband’s narrow point, and launched a series of brutal attacks on Ed Balls, who was last night unable, on television, to put a name to “Bill Somebody”, a businessman who is supposed also to be a Labour supporter.
Cameron made a dismissive joke – “Bill somebody’s not a person: bill somebody’s Labour’s policy” – before opening a general attack on Labour chaos compared to Tory competence. Miliband didn’t stand a chance, and what was worse for him, his own people knew he didn’t stand a chance. With despondent faces they watched their gallant rabbit being shaken in his triumphant adversary’s slavering jaws. This was politics as blood sport. What a pity, from Miliband’s point of view, that the last Labour government devoted so much time to banning fox hunting, but never thought to outlaw this kind of thing. It is hard to see how Miliband can recover from such a mauling.