PMQs sketch: Miliband loses his winning streak
No-one had much appetite for a fight, but they did their best to pretend.
David Cameron was already red faced when he stood up, his hair so impeccably ordered it seemed on the verge of disciplining someone. Too much gel perhaps. For his part, Miliband has grown more comfortable with the PMQs slot. Everyday, he looks more like a party leader and less like a school prefect.
The Labour leader started with Francois Hollande, the new French president whose relationship with Cameron will have been somewhat damaged by the prime minister's decision to throw his lot in with Sarkozy during the election.
"It's a shame he didn't see the French president months ago," Miliband said, "but I'm sure a text message and LOL will go down very well." The reference to Rebekah Brooks' testimony about the prime minister, and his inability to distinguish between 'lots of love' and 'laughing out loud', had clearly been prepared for in Downing Street.
"I must admit I have been overusing the mobile a bit," he replied, "but at least I know how to use it rather than just throwing it at the people who work for me."
Overall, it was a tepid exchange. Miliband's joke did nothing more than refer to the original incident, while Cameron's was aimed for the last Labour leader rather than the one standing in front of him. The Tory benches got excited, but that is not a reliable benchmark for anything.
Miliband eventually moved on to police numbers, an attack designed to win some plaudits at the Police Federation conference in Bournemouth this afternoon. "Not surprised he wants to move on," Cameron said icily, before reeling off a list of economic policies and then proceeding to do the same thing for police reform. He was overegging the pudding a little. Those Rebekah Brooks texts revealed Cameron sometimes feels Miliband has him "on the run". His superior asides have lost some of their acidity in their wake.
Miliband's response wasn't particularly bad, just long-winded and flatulent, a long road which led nowhere.
"Oh dear, he's having a bad day," Cameron said, throwing more eggs in. Labour sources were so keen for him to lose his temper one MP suggested he calm down, even though he seemed perfectly composed. "I'm extremely calm," he said dismissively.
The Labour leader saw a chance for his set joke and went for it – some line about how Cameron's preparation for the Leveson inquiry should involve "anger management". It was a poor moment. The joke was irrelevant. Cameron's didn't seem remotely angry. It was a return to the bad old days, when Miliband would stick to his pre-prepared lines regardless of the debate going on in front of him.
But even here, on a drippy, lethargic day in parliament, Miliband had an interesting political line worthy of careful assessment. "They are unfair," he said, commenting on the coalition government, "out of touch and they'll stand up for the wrong people". That last reference to Rebekah Brooks is a shrewd attempt to make a Westminster bubble story part of an overall impression of government values. It's smart stuff, well aimed. On a more upbeat day he might do some damage with it. And it shows a certain political nous which his enemies underestimate.