By Paul Goodman
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Ed Miliband could scarcely do otherwise than focus his questions on the bits of the Government's mid-term review that David Cameron didn't want to publish. And David Cameron could scarcely do other than answer that he had always intended to publish it anyway. This ensured that today's Prime Minister's Questions was pantomime to such a degree that the Christmas season seemed still be stretching on.
None the less, I think the session cast just a little bit of light on the great debate about whether or not the result of the next election is already clear. The three examples of allegedly broken promises that Milband cited related to the NHS, women, and "tax cuts for millionaires". The first and third especially are Labour heartland concerns. But the party's biggest strategic problem is voter lack of trust in it to manage the economy. As usual, Miliband's questions had nothing to do with trying to solve this problem.
Nor did questions from Labour backbenchers – most of which were about tax credits and child benefit. Sure, the Government's means-testing of child benefit will be difficult to implement, and has already provoked a run of embarrassing stories. But in crude headline terms the policy is popular, and attacking it does nothing to improve the Labour brand. All this simply set up Cameron to proclaim today that that Labour can't be trusted with the economy – and that Miliband "won't back and can't sack" Ed Balls, that reminder of the party's tainted past.
I wrote recently that while I don't see how Cameron can gain a majority in 2015, "the next election
may allow him to form a minority government or try to re-form the Coalition". Miliband's strategic problem on the economy one of the main reasons for this. The Tory benches also continued their recent PMQs trend of being more supportive of the Prime Minister, attacking Labour's tax credit legancy (Stephen Metcalfe), defending the Government's handling of it (Andrew Selous) – and raising Labour's unreliability on welfare at every opportunity.
The one really unhelpful backbench question also showed a sign of the times. Philip Davies asked Cameron to choose between Nick Clegg and Lord Tebbit – that old piece of mischief. Not so long ago, the Prime Minister would have dodged the question. Today, he said "I am closer to all Conservatives than to anyone from any other party". No, the point isn't whether he meant it or not. It's that he said it at all. Finally, there's excitement about the Prime Minister's declaration, in reply to a question from Labour's John Spellar on hunting, that he's never broken the law.
He also told Spellar that the "only red pests I now pursue are in this house". Very robust. Tally-ho!