You might have expected the unemployment figures released this morning to dominate prime minister’s questions – David Cameron certainly did, since when Ed Miliband failed to raise it in his first question he immediately asked why not. In some ways, the figures are good news for the government – unemployment is ever so slightly down – but there are some strong lines of attack for Labour too, with huge numbers of young people still out of work and the number of unemployed women reaching a 25-year high.
Instead, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the past month’s worth of news never happened and you were back in March on Budget day again. Cameron and Miliband clashed over the 50p tax rate, the pasty tax, the granny tax, changes to child benefit, with little or no new light being shed on these matters. Despite being relatively measured in his responses to early questions from backbenchers about party donors in Northern Ireland and postal votes, the prime minister did seem, as Miliband suggested, to be “very excited” when it came to answering questions about the Budget. The fact that the Budget was delivered four weeks ago and has been debated at length both in the Commons and elsewhere made his brutal fervour on these matters all the more strange to watch. Courtesy of Miliband, we even had a quotation from The Thick of It – he spoke of the “omnishambles Budget”, a phrase, which if it really catches on, is sure to get Osborne’s back up, too.
In fact, the only really substantive blow that Cameron landed on Miliband and Labour today was to do with Ken Livingstone’s tax affairs. Whenever the Labour leader came close to pinning him down on whether the coaltion’s Budget in fact helps the rich, Cameron brought up Livingstone’s failure to publish all his tax details, calling on Miliband to order his candidate to do so. The government whips had been busy, too – question after question enabled Cameron to raise Livingstone again. Looking back on the exchanges, I’m not sure either party will be happy with how London-centric the debate appeared – it certainly doesn’t help Westminster appear in touch with what’s going on in the rest of country.
Perhaps the only moment when Cameron fully regained control of himself was in his response to George Galloway’s first PMQ as the MP for Bradford West. After congratulating Galloway on his “stunning” by-election victory, Cameron spoke eloquently and passionately about why our troops are in Afghanistan “at the invitation of an Islamic government” and cautioned him against “playing to the gallery” on such an issue, appearing to give more credence and attention to Galloway's question than to some of those emanating from his own backbenches. It’s unlikely that Galloway will follow this advice, but perhaps Cameron could bear it in mind for himself, the next time he has to answer questions about the Budget.