By Paul Goodman
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Labour has been well ahead of the Conservatives in the polls since last year's budget. This year's approaches without renewed prosperity in sight, and with the deficit stubbornly high. It will be followed by one of the most fractious spending rounds in history, with the Coalition partners at odds both between and within themselves. The Deputy Prime Minister is under pressure over allegations about misconduct by his party's Chief Executive. The Prime Minister is under pressure from UKIP, his Liberal Democrats partners, unhappy backbenchers and a restive party. Serious political commentators suggest that his Home Secretary and Defence Secretary are joining forces in a leadership plot.
So all that Ed Miliband has to do to win outright next time, surely, is to fix a single problem: that neither he nor his Shadow Chancellor are trusted on the economy. So what did he do in PMQs today?
I will tell you. He does what he always does – week in, week out: every week that I watch – namely, to say nothing to address the problem, nothing to lure floating voters, nothing that reaches beyond Labour's core support.
Today, he started with bankers' bonuses and ended with the spare room subsidy (as David Cameron repeatedly called what Miliband calls the Bedroom Tax: I see that our own Harry Phibbs was early to pick up the phrase). I don't want to minimise the sensitivity of the housing benefit change which the Government is backing, but it will obviously have zero impact of millions of middle income voters whose votes are up for grabs, because they will know no-one who will be affected by the change. Miliband's attack, in a sentence, was: You're The Bankers' Friend. Cameron's reply, in a sentence, was: It All Went Wrong On Your Watch. (He twice deployed the image of the Labour leader as a croupier in a casino.)
You can argue the toss either way about who won or lost, but one thing is certain: droning on and on about bonuses and food banks and tax cuts for millionaires (I counted two Labour backbench questions each on the last two subjects) does nothing to get Miliband out of his core territory.
Because of the way votes are distributed in Britain, he is quite likely to be Prime Minister after 2015. I promise that he will disappoint what are already rock-bottom expectations. Labour aristocracy. Hamsptead. Family connection intern job with Tony Benn.
Research job with Harriet Harman. SPAD job with Gordon Brown. LSE. Full-time worker for Scottish Labour election campaign. Back to SPADdom. Harvard. Back to the Treasury. Parliament. No interest in – let alone understanding of – business.
Indeed, no private sector experience all, other than a brief stint as a TV researcher. Entire working life in academia, the Labour Party, and Westminster. Very pleasant to deal with, in my experience (much more so than his brother: that's why he beat him). And that's about it.
Much more interesting were the Conservative backbench questions since, with the possible exception of Chris Skidmore, who asked about the deficit; John Howell, who asked about car sales, and Julian Sturdy, who mentioned the annual immigration fall (though neither he nor the Prime Minister mentioned the Home Secretary: funny, that), none of their questions felt like whips' plants – and none attacked the Government.
Mark Pritchard spoke up for women in Pakistan, George Freeman for victims of violence in Kenya, George Freeman for victims of violence in Kenya, Claire Perry for victims of domestic violence in Britain, Tracey Crouch for people stricken by dementia, Andrew Selous for those exploited by lending sharks, Andrew Bridgen for his constituents over HS2, and Jeremy Lefroy for his constituents over Stafford's A & E: serious questions all.
I ask in my headline, touching on Miliband's failure to address his party's weakness over the economy: "what's he on?" Perhaps the question's redundant. Perhaps he isn't on anything. Perhaps he's so wrapped up in Labour's shrivelled world of bonuses and tax cuts for millionaries and evil Tories that he can't see that he has a problem.