PMQs verdict: Miliband overshadowed by… everybody
When it comes to his despatch box performances, Ed Miliband is barely living up to his job title as leader of the opposition.
Here's a brief list of ways in which the Labour leader fell short this week.
Overshadowed by the prime minister
This was another of those 'open goal' weeks when the government's position was so weak it should have been child's play to polish the prime minister off. Miliband's moaning about Britain's downgraded credit rating was too scripted to have much bite, and he had no rebuttal to the prime minister's accusations about Labour's borrowing plans. It is not enough in a PMQs scenario to resort to that 'I'm supposed to be the one answering the questions' catch-all. Miliband's spinners emphasise the importance of the overall tone, and not the specific words or phrases used. But there needs to be some attempt to engage with the prime minister for Miliband not to look completely cowardly.
Miliband allowed Cameron to be pressuring him from the word go, over Labour Eastleigh candidate John O'Farrell's regret that Margaret Thatcher wasn't polished off by the Brighton bomb. He chose to ignore that completely, opening the way for Cameron to chuck in an awkward follow-up. This time the tone was set against Miliband. The PM went after him on Labour's "excessive borrowing" plans. Not one but two answers from Cameron ended with the prime minister demanding: "Admit it!"
Then came an embarrassing to-and-fro in which the PM was once again completely in control. Cameron's voice was dripping with derision as he quoted the lefty New Statesman's unimpressed verdict on the Labour leader. Miliband did not cope well, saying Cameron was "scraping the barrel" in quoting that particular august organ. Doing so was a mistake. For, as Cameron revealed to hysterically amused Tory MPs, "it was the only newspaper that endorsed his leadership!"
Overshadowed by his right-hand-man
No one was grinning more broadly at that than Ed Balls, who would have liked nothing more than for Miliband to have lost in 2010. The official record will show the shadow chancellor as having kept his mouth shut throughout the main exchanges, but these couldn't be further from the truth. Such is Balls' irrepressible energy that he continued to harangue a nonplussed George Osborne for minutes after Miliband had finished questioning Cameron on the economy. The chancellor shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and muttered little responses to himself, but increasingly looked as if he wanted to violently swat Balls out of existence. Balls is such a pugnacious sort of politician that Miliband's more considered approach to the job appears to be being pushed to one side.
Overshadowed by his backbenchers
They hunt as a pack, and they do it very effectively. Unlike the toadying lickspittles on the government benches who read questions doled out to them by the whips, the Labour backbenchers work as a team to focus on specific politically potent issues. In the past they have repeatedly pressed the prime minister on food banks. Today was the turn of the coalition's 'bedroom tax', which are affecting disabled people especially badly. With MP after MP raising the issue from subtly different angles, Cameron's defences are tested again and again. The roar of disbelief from Labour in reply to the PM's final answer on the issue – "this government always puts disabled people first" – says it all.
Overshadowed by the Speaker
This is, really, another example of Cameron getting one over on Miliband. At the end of the session Speaker John Bercow rebuked Labour's Chris Bryant for yelling "Sarah Palin!" repeatedly. He was likening the Tories' Eastleigh candidate, Maria Hutchings, to the crazed US Republican, of course. The prime minister cleverly turned this into another opportunity to bash O'Farrell, quoting him on his views on the Falklands. It made it look as if Bercow and Cameron were in cahoots against Labour – even if this was a very deft sleight of hand from the prime minister. Miliband was left waving his hands dismissively, pooh-poohing Cameron impotently. It was a neat way to wrap up a session in which Miliband seemed more anonymous than ever.
PMQs is supposed to be his opportunity to lead the fight against the government. Yet, as this week's instalment showed, he is being overshadowed again and again.