By Paul Goodman
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In the wake of the vote on Monday evening and yesterday's remarks by Nick Clegg, the following was bound to happen at today's PMQs:
- Ed Miliband was certain to lead on Government divisions over the repatriation of powers.
- The Conservative bench benches, having savaged David Cameron on Monday, were bound to rally round him in the face of Labour pressure.
- The Prime Minister himself was certain to throw every charge he could back at Miliband – including copious references to Labour's own weaknesses on EU policy.
And all this indeed came to pass.
- Miliband asked one policy question about Europe and growth before hurtling into five on Government divisions. His key question was which powers the Government wants repatriated from the EU – and when. On the one hand, the Tory backbenches will have noted that Cameron had no answer. On the other, the Prime Minister had a quote from his Deputy about rebalancing powers between the Union and member states which did enough – just – to paper over the cracks for the half hour of the session.
- Bernard Jenkin had a question on the Order Paper and was bound to ask about the EU. But his question was directed at Clegg, not Cameron: even the Prime Minister's most trenchant Tory critics don't like assailing him in front of the massed ranks of Labour MPs. No other Conservative MP returned to the repatriation of powers or a referendum. It's worth clocking the big cheer given to Edward Timpson, the Home Secretary's PPS, who asked a question about fostering. Number 10 could make even more use of the popular MP for Crewe and Nantwich.
- Cameron was greeted by more than usually raucous Labour heckling. "At least they don't have to do it in French", he quipped. This set his tone for what followed – and made me wonder whether Tom Bradby was right earlier this week to suggest that the Prime Minister doesn't care much what almost anyone – Labour MPs or his own backbenchers – think about the way he leads the Government. Miliband's tergiversations on the Euro, the IMF and EU aren't well known: Cameron laid into them, dismissing the Opposition leaders as a "mug".
By the way, the Prime Minister launched into a long denunciation of Labour's new Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg, over his about-turns on free schools. And not a squeak from the Speaker. Not so long ago, he'd have hauled Cameron over the coals for straying from Government policy. What's up?