Ed Miliband’s detractors, whether from other parties or inside his own, will try and chalk his strong performance responding the Queen’s Speech this afternoon up to the latitude afforded by opposition. It is easier to oppose than to govern, they will say, so it’s no wonder that the Labour leader bested the prime minister.
And that’s true, in part, but not in whole. The relative merits of government and opposition aside, Ed Miliband gave one of the most relaxed, affable and steely despatch box performances I’ve seen from him yet. He was widely praised for his command of the chamber at the height of the phone-hacking scandal last summer, but this was better than that – charming, even funny, when necessary, but also precise in his attacks on the government.
This Queen’s Speech has “no change, no hope”, Miliband said. There was “nothing in it for young people who are out of work”. The coalition “does have a communication problem – the electorate is speaking and they’re not listening”. He culminated his attacks with the accusation that “in the past two years, he’s gone from David Cameron to David Brent”. Just a few months ago, that kind of line from Miliband would have had us cringing in our seats. Today, his manner was so relaxed and commanding that it went down well.
It emerged fairly quickly that the primacy given to House of Lords reform in the Queen’s Speech is going to be a painful point for the coalition. Cameron said that the Commons can do more than one thing at the same time, and that reform would only proceed if all parties worked together on it. Miliband pressed hard on it, wondering why it was there as a priority, despite the fact that Nick Clegg said yesterday that there are many things he cares about more. Jack Straw implored the PM to consider a pre-legislative referendum to prevent reform getting bogged down in intra-party dissent. Barry Sheerman asked what he should tell people on the doorstep who ask him why Lords reform got a mention, where youth unemployment didn’t.
Social care and lobbying also came up frequently when the prime minister gave way to backbenchers. It was only when Cameron stuck to his script and talked his way through the issues that are included in the Queen’s Speech – banking reform, organised crime, electricity market reform – that he made inroads. Miliband might have exceeded expectations today, but the occasion only serves to demonstrate how very far he still is from writing his own Queen’s Speech.