Miliband spikes Cameron’s PMQs with leadership mockery

By Ian Dunt  and Alex Stevenson

David Cameron faced mockery and derision in the Commons this lunchtime, after Ed Miliband used the government's alcohol pricing U-turn to pour scorn on his rival's leadership.

The Labour leader prompted uproar in the chamber after opening his questions with a sarcastic query about today's retreat on plans to introduce a minimum pricing regime for cheap booze.

He asked: "In the light of his U-turn on alcohol pricing, can the prime minister tell us is there anything he could organise in a brewery?"

Miliband's opener was greeted with an unusual degree of approval from Westminster watchers. It proved especially potent after destabilising rumours of leadership manoeuvres from home secretary Theresa May, who watched the session away from the view of journalists by the Speaker's chair.

Cameron, who could not help but smile in response, had to wait for loudly expressed approval from the Labour benches to die down before observing, somewhat confusingly: "I would like to organise in the brewery in my constituency a party to which he would be very welcome to celebrate that the shadow chancellor should stay for a very long time on the frontbench."

The remark appeared to be part of a pre-prepared strategy from the prime minister to mock Miliband's own leadership style.

Cameron's retreat on alcohol pricing is thought to have been triggered by concerted opposition by Theresa May, Andrew Lansley and Michael Gove – in the face of the prime minister's personal approval for the measure.

"I feel devastated," Tory MP Sarah Wollaston said earlier.

"Whenever alcohol is too cheap, people die. In political terms, don't ditch it – let's introduce a sunset clause. Please, please try it."

"There is a problem with deeply discounted alcohol in supermarkets and other stores and I'm absolutely determined we will deal with this," Cameron said later in the session, in response to a question from Wollaston. He refused to clarify his position on whether there is a place for minimum pricing in the government's final decision on policy.

Shadow Home Office minister Diana Johnson said: "Theresa May and David Cameron have announced a minimum alcohol price twice in the last 12 months.

"Now we hear reports the home secretary has changed her mind on her own policy and wants to U-turn. This is weak leadership and weak government."

But leading Tory backbencher David Davis welcomed the end of a "blunderbuss of a policy".

Cameron has intervened personally on the alcohol pricing issue on several occasions, arguing that a minimum unit price would cut health and crime problems as well as bring back some semblance of order to Britain's high streets at the weekends by preventing groups 'pre-loading' on cheap alcohol before going out.

But a concerted effort by Gove, Lansley and May appears to have stopped the policy in its tracks, despite Home Office statements insisting it is still considering replies to its consultation.

If so, the withdrawal of the policy will be treated as further evidence of Cameron's increasingly weak position, as he tries to control embryonic rebellions against his leadership among backbenchers and around the Cabinet table.

The prime minister has taken to holding pre-Cabinet meetings of just Tory ministers, in what amounts to a weekly political Cabinet.

Yesterday's meeting reportedly led to Gove publicly attacking May for her barely-concealed leadership ambitions.

The home secretary has been at the centre of leadership speculation since a ConservativeHome rally speech this weekend expanded well past her brief and started to lay out a right-wing 2015 election agenda.

The outburst follows a slew of negative unattributed comments about May from frontbenchers, including one source who described her as "100% charmless".

The attacks suggest a coordinated retaliation against the home secretary and raise doubts about the loyalty of those around her, given she singled Gove out for praise during her weekend speech, possibly with a view to using him as a running mate.

With pressure on the prime minister building ahead of the Budget, he will take deliver a party political broadcast this evening promising to stay the course on his deficit reduction plan.

"Some people want to abandon the course we are on and I profoundly think they are wrong," he will say.

"You're not prime minister to be the good guy or the bad guy, to be the popular guy – you're there to be the guy that gets the job done, and that's what people want you to do."

Tory backbenchers were reportedly given a talk on social media discipline by election coordinator Lynton Crosby yesterday, as they were encouraged not to tweet their views on the issues of the day.

Feedback from backbenchers suggested they were prepared to behave with greater discipline but needed to see a similar approach at the Cabinet table.