When David Cameron was criticised, during the last general election, for failing to get rid of “Punch and Judy” politics at PMQs, he replied: “Prime Minister’s Questions is a bear pit and you can’t change it…There’s an element of Christians being fed to the lions and you’re either a lion or a Christian.”
Today it would be more accurate to say you’re either a jackal or a jackal. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition behaved like opportunistic scavengers, each attempting with a snarl, and a string of down-market insults, to drive the other off the fly-blown carcass of British politics.
The pity of this spectacle is that both men could do better. When Ed Miliband is no longer the leader of the Labour Party, and someone else is making a mess of that role, perhaps we shall look back on him and say he was actually not that bad.
Most weeks at PMQs, Miliband opens with a short and well-judged question. This week he raised the question of the Prime Minister’s renegotiation of our relationship with the European Union: “He’s got to get 27 countries to agree with him. How many has he got so far?”
Cameron had no desire to talk about that, so instead pointed out that Miliband has refused to promise an EU referendum. The Prime Minister proceeded to demand: “Why is he frightened of the British public?”
Miliband tried to stick to the original question of how many allies Cameron has in Europe, asserted that the answer is “none”, and went on: “Now he says his admiration for Angela Merkel is enormous. If it’s going so swimmingly, why does he think Chancellor Merkel has already rejected his proposals?”
Cameron had no desire to talk about that, so instead quoted Alistair Darling’s description of the EU referendum as “a boil that has to be lanced”. Miliband retorted that Cameron’s divided party was “the boil that has to be lanced”, and from then on we were in to an exchange of insults. Miliband’s evident aim was to divide Cameron from his backbenchers, by suggesting that however unsuccessful the EU renegotiation turns out to be, Cameron himself will vote to stay inside the EU. Cameron stuck in response to the line, “I want Britain to stay in a reformed European Union”, and attacked Labour for being “so chicken”.
Miliband accused Cameron of being “a don’t know Prime Minister”, while Cameron said Miliband was “a leader in crisis” leading “a party with nowhere to go”.
PMQs has nowhere to go but up. If it goes on like this, it will exhaust the patience of the spectators long before next May.