By Paul Goodman
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The Leader of the Opposition has six questions at his disposal for PMQs, and can break them up any way he wants. David Cameron liked to take all six in a row and simply have done with it. Iain Duncan Smith preferred two groups of three (or sometimes of four and two): if you're relatively new to the procedure, this is a safer route than going through all of your allocation at once, because there's less of a chance of you being knocked off course. Michael Howard once did five and one – the one being a marvellous quote from Gordon Brown to Tony Blair to the effect of "When are you going to hand over to me?" Any follow-up was unneccesary.
Like Duncan Smith at the time, Miliband is new to the game and settled today on two groups of three. This was partly because his researchers had dug up a helpful claim (at least for him): that the regional growth fund has issued 22 press releases but helped only two businesses. The Labour leader duly slotted that allegation into his second group of three, after asking Cameron how many businesses had been helped by the fund. As Miliband's team will have hoped, the Prime Minister couldn't cite a figure. Mind you, Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) suggested that the fund has been rather more active later, so the Labour leader's claim may need checking.
The problem for Miliband was that he cut short his first series of questions to ask his second. The former were on the Fox affair, and the effect was thus of him sitting down as soon as he was really getting going. The Prime Minister was thus able to get off the hook of an awkward question: could he guarantee that no other Minister has in place the same sort of private arrangements as Fox had? The view of the lobby on Twitter as I write is that Miliband was calm this week, Cameron flustered and under-prepared, and that the former is awarded this week's winner's garland. But the two questions that perhaps mattered most were from the Prime Minister's own backbenches – on the EU, and from Andrew Rosindell (Romford) and Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) respectively.
Rosindell simply made the case for a referendum, citing Churchill and Thatcher in doing so. (I didn't know that they were enthusiasts for plebiscites.) Cameron duly carried out the Commons equivalent of tiptoeing through the tulips – emphasising control of the EU budget, steering clear of further bailouts (how does that square with higher IMF payments?) and making sure the single market is working. He also stressed the party's commitment to some renegotiation and left the door ajar to a future poll – he doesn't, he said, support a referendum "come what may". I understand that he will be in Australia this week and there are signs that the whips are already climbing down. If it was Miliband's week, it was even more Rossindell and Pritchard's PMQ session.