Paul Flynn, a left-wing Labour parliamentarian of admirable independence of mind, raised a point of order at the end of PMQs in which he suggested sending “the Prime Minister and his ministers on a seminar to teach them the precise meaning of the word ‘question’, the precise meaning of the word ‘answer’, and the need for a link between the two”.
One could not help agreeing with Flynn that this link was missing from David Cameron’s responses to Ed Miliband. Communication between the two leaders is seldom good, but today it broke down completely. Miliband asked about Cameron’s pledge before the last general election to cut net migration “to the tens of thousands”, failing which people could “vote us out in five years’ time”.
Cameron pointed out that Britain has created more jobs than the rest of the European Union put together. But instead of developing the argument that immigration is a sign of economic vitality, and also one of the conditions for it, the Prime Minister veered into the recitation of a list of other pledges which have been kept, on subjects as diverse as pensions, Sure Start health visitors, TV licences, winter fuel payments and the married couples’ tax allowance.
To Conservative supporters, the recitation of this list was more than a little embarrassing, for it sounded so shamelessly evasive. The Prime Minister avoided any admission of failure, but at the expense of avoiding any connection with the British public. In early 2015 the Palace of Westminster sounds as in touch with wider opinion as the Palace of Versailles in early 1789.
One could not help feeling relieved that Cameron is doing all he can to prevent the holding of the television debates. But once again, his method of doing so lacks directness. He plays the political game better than his rivals, but the game itself is far from attractive.
It is a mark of Miliband’s failure as Leader of the Opposition that he allows Cameron to treat him with such contempt. But neither of them was the saddest party leader in the House. That unhappy distinction belonged to Nick Clegg, who sat with vacant eye, his mind already in another world. His efforts to revive the Liberal Democrats appear to have come to nothing. Instead they have dropped to five per cent in the polls. He at least must be starting to admit to himself that his prospects of remaining leader after the general election look bleak.