PMQs verdict: Mind-bendingly irritating

In the week when David Cameron told Labour it had been taking "policy-changing substances", the first PMQs in what felt like a decade revealed just how addicted MPs are to partisanship.

The prime minister wasn't going to let this occasion go by without slipping in at least one Government-Endorsed Joke. He may have been on holiday to Ibiza, but it was the opposition which had been indulging in something a little mind-bending. It was obviously pre-prepared and not actually funny, in the normally accepted meaning of the word. But all Cameron had to do was tee it up with a neat little pause and then thwack it into the ether for his backbenchers to roar their acclamation. The shadow Cabinet was full of consternation.

This turned out to be a specialism of the prime minister, who had them wriggling with discomfort again later in the session. "Hands up! Who wants a referendum? Don't be shy!" he told them. Ed Balls instantly developed an earnest wish to have a quick word in Ed Miliband's ear. The gaggle of Labour females to their left began pointing at the government frontbenchers, as if admiring the view.

Later, Cameron caught shadow health secretary Andy Burnham rejecting the PM's claim that Labour want to cut the NHS. This, in the PM's view, was another policy switch from the opposition. "There are so many U-turns," he said, in another attempt at a joke, "they should be having a grand prix!" Even his most loyal Tory MPs could only manage a smirk at that.

That was at the end of the session, when backbenchers' thirst for the PMQs bearpit had been slaked and their thoughts were beginning to turn to lunch. For much of this half-hour the atmosphere was one of intense excitement at the return to this very intense form of partisanship. Like drug addicts rolling their eyes with pleasure at the end of a disruption in their usual supply, so MPs showed their appetite for a political bunfight. They cheered Cameron noisily at the start of the session.

They seemed more susceptible to casting instant judgement on backbenchers, too. Tory backbencher Therese Coffey got a firm 'hear-hear'. Douglas Carswell got an excitable 'oooh' of anticipation. Julian Huppert, who even amongst Lib Dems needs a thicker skin than most, was received with outright groans.

There was some actual politics in the session too, of course. Ed Miliband's six questions were about the NHS' accident and emergency crisis – a sensible enough topic, but one which Cameron leapt on as evidence that Labour couldn't cope with its economic policy relaunch. He and Miliband covered all the bases as they worked their way through the arguments, now stale and tired after three years of repetition, about the lacklustre performance of the government. Labour were in "complete confusion", Cameron concluded; the coalition was "history repeating itself", Miliband found.

Most telling of all was the lack of hostility from Tory backbenchers, which is significant and noteworthy after what has been a terrible few weeks for the prime minister. He was pressed on the recall mechanism again by Douglas Carswell and harangued by John Baron over reservists, but this was not an occasion when any real anger against the PM could be sensed.

Take Eleanor Laing and Bernard Jenkin, for example; both have been thorns in Cameron's side before now. Today they chose to ask questions about the EU referendum bill and Trident. Both are issues where the Tories are standing up for their beliefs against the Liberal Democrats; the questions reinforce, rather than undermine, the party leader.

As the next general election approaches, the heady highs of partisanship will become ever more alluring to even the most pesky of Tory backbenchers. MPs may be addicted to partisanship now, but Cameron will be keen to increase their dosage in the months to come.