“Get stuck in there!” This was David Cameron’s command to Ed Miliband. The Prime Minister repeated the order three times to the Leader of the Opposition. It was like watching a hearty, old-fashioned, snugly-wrapped schoolmaster instruct a thin, shivering 15-year-old intellectual to get stuck in to a game of Rugby football.
Miliband did not want to get stuck in. He had no desire to fling himself headlong in the mud in a vain attempt to tackle some bigger, faster and stronger boy. How he wished he was back in his study, tucking in to a slice of hot buttered toast and reading The Future of Socialism, instead of out here on this windswept playing-field, with revoltingly self-assured brutes like Cameron trying to build up his character, or get him killed, by forcing him to play a game fit only for barbarians.
Cameron was in his element. He has seldom looked perkier. George Osborne was smiling too. He seemed more relaxed than he has for a long time. The opinion polls putting the Conservatives ahead of Labour have done wonders for Tory morale. Today’s fall in the unemployment figures encourages the belief that those polls are part of a trend which could carry the Tories to victory in 2015.
So Cameron was if possible even readier than normal to treat with scorn any objections raised by Miliband. The Labour leader felt obliged to begin by welcoming the fall in unemployment: a concession which prompted a great burst of mockery. Cameron said he would like to welcome Miliband’s welcome, and observed that the employment of Romanians and Bulgarians had actually gone down in the first three months of the year: the very time when UKIP and others warned us to expect a flood of new arrivals from those countries.
The Labour leader accused Cameron of being much too soft on Pfizer’s proposed takeover of AstraZeneca: “Pfizer doesn’t need a PR man. They’ve got the Prime Minister.” But Cameron accused Miliband of “doing nothing but playing politics”, and then reverted to telling him to play a proper game of Rugby: “I say get stuck in, negotiate hard, fight for Britain.”
How unbearable these patrician exhortations must sound to Miliband. Even after the Labour leader had asked his six questions, Cameron went on persecuting him. When Mark Hendrick (Lab, Preston) asked about ambulances queueing outside hospitals, Cameron retorted that Miliband had said nothing about the NHS since November. The Prime Minister proceeded to accuse his opposite number of longing for a “winter crisis” which never came: “It didn’t happen because we’ve got a strong NHS, more doctors, more nurses serving our country.”
Miliband must feel this ebullient Prime Minister is trying to reduce him to the status of a mere stooge, or schoolboy, who must do exactly as he is told. The Labour leader will doubtless resist such a degrading fate. But at today’s encounter, he showed no sign of having discovered how to avoid being dominated by Cameron.