PMQs verdict: Cameron wins another battle, but will he win the war?

The leader of the opposition seems to have a new tactic up his sleeve: denying David Cameron the oxygen to mount his attacks. Certainly the prime minister had a long list of issues he wanted to talk about, and was ready to complain that he was not giving the opportunity to do so. It might have been nice for Cameron if today's positive unemployment stats had been given a mention, but the whole point of the session is he doesn't get to decide what he gets asked about. "He hasn't asked a full set of questions about the economy since February!" he grumbled.

Last night Downing Street sources were burbling about their enthusiasm for Ed Miliband to lead on the NHS. And after the Labour leader opened with a couple of questions about nursing, it seemed a repeat of yesterday's bruising encounters between Jeremy Hunt and Andy Burnham was on the cards.

It was not to be. Just when it looked like the session was heating up, Miliband sidestepped into a series of questions about plain packaging on cigarettes. He suggested it was more than a coincidence that Lynton Crosby, the man Cameron hopes will help win him the next general election, is also a tobacco lobbyist.

Miliband has cultivated such a great respect for the scripted questions placed before him by his aides that he now seems wholly incapable of deviating from them. This meant he resisted an invitation from Cameron, who had suggested the unions' support for his leadership was a "scandal he should do something about", to repeat last week's party funding offensive. It was another instance of the PM being denied the oxygen to attack Labour.

Instead Miliband drove the session into the mire, banging on about the "disgraceful episode" of Crosby and using his idiomatic equivalent of the nuclear option – accusing Cameron of using "weasel words". The only sensible response to this sort of thing is to turn the question around. The PM has been employing exactly this tactic for the last three years, and did so again on lobbying. "They are in no position to lecture anyone on standards in public life," he declared. Anyone watching the session could not help but conclude both sides were as tarnished and grubby as the other.

Cameron also broadened his attack on the floppiness of the opposition this week. In the past he has focused his energies on painting Miliband as being the epitome of weakness. And he did so again today, with the session's last big cheer coming after he dismissed "this completely useless leader!"

But what we hadn't seen so much of before was a widening of this approach. "I've got a summer tip for the leader of the Labour party," Cameron declared. "If you want to do better you need to move the two people next to you and you need to do it fast!" To Miliband's right, as always, sat Ed Balls, whose official role of Thorn In The Side Of The Government is now almost so established it deserves its own salary. To his left, though, was Harriet Harman, something close to a wallflower by comparison. I can't remember her being referenced by the PM in these sessions since the general election. Is this the start of something new?

With the threat of a reshuffle now looming, Cameron has no such trouble from his own frontbenchers. Even the Lib Dems (who?) were quiet today. His biggest concern is from the core backbenchers who, despite the good feeling generated by the recent No 10 Rose Garden barbecue, continue to cause trouble. Miliband had referenced Sarah Wollaston, the Totnes Tory selected after an open primary, calling it a "day of shame for this government". I glanced across to see her laughing away, while next to her men in suits shook their heads and frowned.

That is not a big worry for Cameron ahead of the summer break, which now looms before parliament like Eric Pickles looms over his salad. While his parliamentary performances have more or less neutralised the hapless Miliband, thoughts this summer will instead be turning to the next general election. This is the reason PMQs is becoming easier for him; the backbenchers are less inclined to go on the offensive, making it much more straightforward for him to work them up into a frenzy of anti-Labour hissing.

Winning the support of the British people is a different contest altogether. As the prime minister chillaxes in the sun, and Conservative associations up and down the country start to turn their attention to the coming contest, he will be starting to ponder the tricky questions he hopes a certain Australian will be able to help with.

"The role of Lynton Crosby is to advise me on how to defeat a divided and useless Labour party. On the basis of today's evidence I'm not sure he's really necessary." It got a lot of laughter in the Commons chamber. But with Ipsos Mori today releasing polling data putting Labour's lead at 11 points, it could yet be Miliband who laughs last.