The first prime minister’s questions for six weeks and the House listened, in inevitable gloom, as Mr Cameron brought it up to date with the British death toll in Afghanistan.  Five soldiers and the aid worker Linda Norgrove whose death in an ill-fated rescue mission the prime minister later confirmed was being looked into by a joint US-UK inquiry.

No one doubts, of course, that the prime minister is right to use up the first few minutes of PMQs on this grim task, though he might be advised against puncturing the solemnity of the moment by tacking onto the end of his statement anything else he just thinks he wants to say. On this occasion it was a hi there message to the Chilean miners emerging from their two months underground.  Gripping though the Chilean rescue may be as a daytime TV spectacle – more interesting than the Commonwealth Games at any rate – this hardly seems to count alongside the deaths of our soldiers in combat as a reason for holding up the House.

At least Junior Miliband, headlining for the first time in the opposition spot, did not feel obliged to repeat the prime minister’s warm words for South America, though he did choose to read out all the dead soldiers’ names – as Mr Cameron had just done – which, I am afraid to say, made it sound rather as if he was milking his moment of statesmanship for everything it was worth. He had been piped into position by what he chose to characterise as “kind” words from the prime minister. Since these had come in response to a mischevious question from Tory backbencher David Evenett, who wanted to congratulate the Labour members opposite on their choice of leader – the point of course being that they had chosen a different Miliband – Junior was being either excessively courteous or plain naieve.

Thereafter, things got better for Mr Miliband. Noticing that the prime minister’s message to Chile must have been something of a solidarity statement – Mr Cameron being able to recognise fellow human beings when they are in a hole – he wanted to know where the Tory leader stood on the issue of the fairness of his child benefit proposals. Mr Miliband had an unanswerable point – the fairness, or more likely otherwise, of two earners just below the top rate keeping their child benefit while a one top-rate taxpayer household would lose theirs – and so the prime minister therefore chose not to answer it.

For this purpose he adopted the ancient, but infuriatingly impermeable, technique of making instead a slightly-related, but in fact entirely besides the point, response.  To understand the venerable heritage of this method, imagine the leader of the opposition in 1066 berating King Harold for losing the Battle of Hastings.  What the honourable gentleman completely fails to understand, replies the King, is that it is only three weeks since I wiped the floor with the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. The point about Stamford Bridge is, of course, true, but not very convincing in the circumstances, especially if those circumstances include having an arrow in your eye.

Down a hole and with an arrow in his optic, the prime minister did well enough in the end to battle to a draw, but it will be Mr Miliband who gets the plaudits for a confident performance on his first outing. He even managed an “I ask the questions and he answers them” gambit, which older lags in his shoes have usually waited at least a year before trotting out. Precocious or what.

Later on another Tory backbencher, Margot James, reminded the prime minister, perhaps not entirely in line with the whips’ instructions, that the health campaigner, Claire Rayner, who died on Monday, had promised to come back and haunt him if he buggers up the NHS. A Labour MP, reckoned to be Clwyd’s Chris Ruane, was heard to howl hysterically at this point, a sound not heard within the Parliamentary Labour Party since Junior got elected. But back to the late Ms Rayner who, a decade ago, left the Labour Party for the Liberal Democrats because it was Tony Blair back then tinkering with her “beloved” health service. With the Libs now in coalition she obviously felt the only political transition left open to her was to the afterlife.  “I was brought up listening to Dr Rayner on Capital Radio” replied Mr Cameron, providing a rare insight into the Eton curriculum. But Ms Rayner was a nurse, not a doctor, so whatever listening Dave was doing, it wasn’t very close.


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