PMQs sketch: Miliband fumbles a major victory

Ed Miliband had David Cameron on the ropes and then – inexplicably – he changed course.

By Ian Dunt

Ed Miliband was heading for a clear-cut victory on the subject of this week's EU summit when he decided – inexplicably – to sit down. Worse: by the time he stood up, he strived to inject some much-needed unity into the Tory ranks just as he was in a place to exploit their divisions.

Cameron entered the Commons chamber with the grave face of a leader who knows the most hostile questions will be coming from behind him. Eurosceptic backbenchers feel a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pull back from Europe is being squandered and their principles will, impressively, overrule party political advantage. It was prime cuts of red meat for a leader of the opposition.

Miliband began by deploying his standard cold-hearted sarcasm, asking politely which powers Cameron intended to repatriate from Brussels – a promise he offered his backbenchers a few months ago, just before 81 of them turned their noses up at him. The PM contorted himself into a series of improbable positions, bumbling his way towards an entirely unconvincing response. "Let me explain," he said, weakly. With just one question Miliband had him on the ropes. The benches behind him were not disposed to back him up.

"The more he talks the more confusing his position becomes," Miliband replied, with ample justification. Even one of those dire and self-inflicted PMQs 'jokes' – something about turning handbagging into handwringing – failed to diminish his momentum.

Cameron was reduced to making up Labour policy, outlining what the UK's position would be if the opposition had its way and we were in the euro – something Ed Balls had explicitly ruled out for his entire lifetime in the same chamber less than 24 hours earlier. Cameron's performance was weak and uninspiring. His position made no political or tactical sense and his backbenchers were gazing at him like he'd nicked their girlfriend. It was hammer time. But then Miliband sat down.

Halfway through his questions the Labour leader decided to take a bit of time out, only to return with some juicy IFS findings on how the poor will suffer the most in the drive to reduce the deficit. Cameron leapt on the new topic with an enthusiasm which must have left Miliband questioning his judgement. "No, his figures are wrong," the prime minister said sharply, his previous vacillations replaced by certainty and confidence.

It was a perfectly acceptable exchange for Miliband, who performed admirably, but he had managed to scrape a draw out of a sure-fire win.

Worse, he picked a topic that unites the Conservative party – the precise opposite effect of his opening salvo. Suddenly Conservative MPs roared as one, as Cameron offered the usual guff about no-one trusting Labour with the economy again.

The unity did not last long. Soon, Tory backbenchers emerged to ask question after question on Europe – on the effect on the City of London, on democratic legitimacy, on the emergence of a technocratic super-state.

The fracture at the heart of the Conservative party was laid bare for all to see. Cameron, in an impossible political position, jigged around it like a man dancing for his life. Miliband shone the spotlight on it, chipped away and then, astoundingly, attempted to sow it all up again. His only reward for a decent Commons performance was evidence of a major tactical misjudgement.