Can’t Ed Miliband do better than this? Week after week, he begins well enough at Prime Minister’s Questions, only for his urge to rile David Cameron to get the better of him, and prompt an inglorious descent into cheap abuse.
Miliband started on the floods: a serious and topical subject. But the Labour leader proceeded to shelter himself behind people who “feel more could have been done”: a remark which prompted the thought that malcontents can always be found, who in the middle of a crisis make the unreasonable demand that the Government sort the whole thing out by teatime.
If Miliband wishes to establish himself as a Prime Minister in waiting, he will have to tell the House what serious measures he himself wishes to see taken. He cannot just be a spokesman for every unrealistic grumbler.
The Leader of the Opposition then turned to the question of the number of women in the Parliamentary Conservative Party. Here, more than on the floods, he saw a chance to embarrass and insult the Prime Minister.
Cameron turned out to wish to give, first, some further information about the floods. The Labour Party did not wish to hear it. Miliband himself was made to look insincere: his own backbenchers were not in the slightest bit interested in the first subject he had raised, and nor, for very long, was he. As Cameron himself pointed out, “They claim to be concerned, but they won’t listen to the answer.”
The House was in uproar. John Bercow, the Speaker, had even greater difficulty than usual in restoring any kind of order. Bercow is in many respects far superior to his predecessor: the business of the House moves along quicker, time is more likely to be found to raise important subjects while they are still newsworthy, and the Speaker himself is actually capable of thinking on his feet.
But at PMQs, Bercow looks more and more like a supply teacher who has lost control of the class and roars himself hoarse in a vain attempt to assert his authority. Today he was reduced to telling Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, to go away and write 1,000 lines. Bercow lacks the moral stature to shame delinquent MPs into some semblance of good behaviour.
But the same could be said of Miliband, who in pursuit of his great aim of annoying Cameron was soon chucking this jibe: “I guess they didn’t let women into the Bullingdon Club either.”
Cameron pointed out that under his leadership, the number of Tory women MPs has increased from 17 to 48. He agreed there is more to do, but argued that progress has been made. The Conservative Party is also proud to have had, in Margaret Thatcher, the first and so far only woman Prime Minister.
Miliband continued to take cheap shots at Cameron. The Labour leader is entitled to play things like this if he wants to, but makes himself sound more and more like a member of the awkward squad on the back benches, and less and less like a serious contender for power.
At least four Tory backbenchers spoke in praise of Oltep. They referred, not to some obscure but brilliant thinker in the Prime Minister’s policy unit, but to “Our Long-Term Economic Plan”: an expression we shall hear repeated so often and so mechanically between now and May 2015 that it deserves its own acronym.
But on the economy, the Tories at least have something to say which they can call a plan. The Labour leader is reduced to covering up his lack of a plan by indulging in schoolboy flouts and jeers.