Ed Miliband inflicted deep embarrassment on David Cameron. The Prime Minister seemed to believe that as so often in the past, he could brush the Labour leader aside like a troublesome insect.
But this turned out to be an insect with an excruciatingly painful sting: one that may produce an allergic reaction of a kind that on rare occasions is life-threatening. The longer the contest went on, with Cameron flailing vainly at empty air and Miliband inflicting fresh injuries pretty much at will, the gloomier the Tory benches became.
John Major’s intervention the previous day was a gift to the Labour leader, who seized the earliest chance to say: “Of course John Major was a Prime Minister who won a majority, unlike this Prime Minister.”
That hurt, but did not exhaust the cruel insect’s venom. When the Prime Minister spoke of rolling back the green charges introduced by Labour, Miliband reminded the House of Cameron’s earlier line on greenery: “He was the man who said ‘Vote blue to go green’.”
Cameron tried to retaliate by reading at excessive length from some dreary Labour briefing document. The Speaker, John Bercow, let him get away with this, but in debating terms it sounded flat and irrelevant.
The Labour leader proceeded to torment the Prime Minister with an offer to help him legislate to introduce the price freeze which Miliband proposed almost a month ago. Goaded beyond endurance, Cameron stood to defend himself. But he rose too soon: Miliband was still on his feet and the Prime Minister had to subside once more into his place, a figure who instead of being in command was being knocked all over the shop.
The curious thing about this defeat is that everything Miliband said was perfectly foreseeable. If anyone had carried out an ambush, it was Major the previous day. But all the same, Downing Street ought in the intervening hours to have been able to think of some way to embrace Major while dismissing Miliband.
The Prime Minister began with a strong enough line: “I do believe in intervening in the energy market.” But he never followed this up with any clear idea of how he will intervene in order to defend ordinary people against the profiteering energy companies.
Major wants to levy a special tax on the companies’ profits and use the money to help people who in a hard winter will find themselves choosing whether to go hungry or to go cold.
Cameron presumably considers that Major’s proposal would do far more harm than good. But he needed something else to put in its place, and he hasn’t found it.
The Prime Minister deserved this defeat. He underestimated his opponents, and the attractiveness of the proposals they put forward. By spurning, perhaps for high-minded reasons, the populism of Miliband and Major, Cameron got stuck with the unpopulism of being the energy companies’ only friend.
Now that Cameron was down, Bercow decided with characteristic gallantry that it was safe to kick him. The Speaker ruled that the term “con man”, which Cameron had just applied for a second time to Miliband, “is frankly unparliamentary”.
Cameron indicated that he wished to rise, but the Speaker gave him no chance to retrieve the situation, but just said: “It’s a bit below the level. We’ll leave it there.”
The Prime Minister’s performance had in all sorts of ways been a bit below the level. Perhaps this will be the kick he needs to stop underestimating his opponents.