It could have been so different.
Before PMQs it seemed certain that Miliband would focus on Europe and try to drive another wedge between the increasingly “isolated” DPM and his Tory masters. All of the material was there if Miliband wanted it.
But then this morning’s unemployment figures presented themselves. Miliband has had some success in recent months tackling Cameron on the specifics of his Economic plans. So off Miliband went – rightly – in attacking the PM on that.
The usual PMQs dance then began – Ed asks some policy questions, Cameron refuses to accept the premise of the question, and whoever shouts loudest claims victory. So far, so normal.
It was when Miliband switched to Europe that everything started to go wrong. And it went wrong because of a fundamental weakness in Miliband’s technique – his jokes aren’t that good and he’s not that funny. While a scripted gag in a speech can work well – see Margaret Thatcher’s befuddled “Dead Parrot” reference – but in a verbal jousting session like PMQs all but the best one liners come across contrived and forced.
The problem is compounded by the act that Cameron actually is rather witty and quick on his feet. More often than not that reveals itself in Flashman style hot-headedness and unnecessary attacks, but sometimes – through planning or quick wit – it works. Cameron is a performer, flying by the seat of his pants with little grasp of detail.
Miliband’s mistake – and today was the perfect exemplar of that – is to try and take him on his own territory, the gag stakes. No-one is ever going to mistake Ed Miliband for a comic. Instead he should play to his strengths. He’s a serious and thoughtful man for serious times. He has a fantastic grasp of detail. He’s passionate. That’s the tactic he should have used today.
When Cameron responded to Ed’s question about the PM/DPM split on the EU with the “not brothers” zinger, Ed should have retained his composure, and responded with a straight bat:
“Why is the Prime Minister making jokes about the most public split between a Prime Minister and his Deputy in a generation? If I were a Lib Dem MP I’d wonder if this was really a laughing matter,” he could have said.
Instead he seemed to stick to the script, knocked off balance by Cameron, and tried to end with a joke of his own. A flat little parp of a gag, unfitting for the occasion and limp in comparison to Cameron’s.
He doesn’t do gags well. He has so many other strengths. When he’s been at his best at PMQs he’s played to those strengths. He can win again, if he sticks to them in future.