It was a scrappy prime minister’s questions today. It is as if everyone realises that, whatever they do, the polls are not moving and so they have lost heart with setpieces.

David Cameron defended PMQs saying that it was a way of holding the government to account. But as he bandied around dodgy figures, refused to answer questions properly and got his own members of parliament to make sycophantic enquiries about the ‘long-term economic plan’; there was not much chance of him being held to account today.

Cameron even indulged in a touch of light filibustering. He read out a list of Tory manifesto promises declaring that he had kept every single one of them. The speaker was so annoyed he was finally moved to call Ed Miliband and interrupt.

Miliband’s aim today was to prove that Cameron had broken his promise on immigration and so could not be trusted with any policy.

‘Before the last election. The prime minister made a “No ifs, no buts” promise on immigration. Would he remind us what that promise was?’

Cameron blustered about having no control of European Union migration. Miliband reminded him that he said he would reduce immigration to tens of thousands and now it was 298,000 and higher than when he took office.

He reminded Cameron of his promise: ‘“If we don’t deliver on our side of the bargain, vote us out in five years’ time” When he said it, did he mean it?’

Cameron began to make the argument that immigration was the sign of a strong economy, and that his anti-immigration rhetoric had been about benefits. He was certainly in no mood to talk about European immigration except to say, ‘We have a plan to deal with that.’

‘The prime minister’s promise on immigration,’ said Miliband, ‘Makes the deputy prime minister’s promise on tuition fees look like a model of integrity.’ Nick Clegg, sitting beside the prime minister, looked miserable.

Then Cameron attempted to strike back. How many people, he asked were going to put Miliband on their election leaflets?

‘So it’s all about leadership, excellent, great,’ said Miliband. ‘Broadcasters have proposed a head-to-head debate between the prime minister and me … I will be at that debate, will he be at that debate?’

Again Cameron refused to commit even though he was further goaded by Miliband. Cameron looked weak. Not on the run exactly, but not in control.

Labour MPs asked a whole range of questions. Barry Gardiner (Brent North), told us that his mother, father and sister had all died of cancer. And, he said, 20,000 people did not get cancer treatment within the target time. ‘Even if the NHS can survive another five years of this government, 100,000 cancer patients cannot.’

Cameron blamed the 50 per cent increase in referrals for the missed targets.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) asked about the failings in his local maternity unit and said he hoped the prime minister would implement the findings of the Kirkup report.

David Winnick (Walsall North) asked Cameron if he realised that ‘as prime minister he simply doesn’t understand the lives of people on moderate incomes.’ The Tory party, he declared, was still the party of the rich.

Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) asked about the closure of North Ayrshire tax office. Cameron did not answer but instead accused the previous Labour government of being in the hands of tax avoiders.

Both Diana Johnson (Hull North) and Meg Munn (Sheffield Heeley) brought up child safety. Johnson asked why there had been fewer investigations into child sexual exploitation now than in 2010-11. She blamed the large cuts to the police service and suggested it would get worse as more police were cut. Munn said that the policy of not inspecting schools deemed ‘outstanding’ for years and years meant that child protection was put in jeopardy. She said: ‘child protection should be more central to the Ofsted process.’

A couple of Labour MPs tried to catch Cameron out. Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) asked if the prime minister agreed with the Conservative Norfolk MP George Freeman that ‘prosecuting people who don’t pay the minimum wage is the politics of envy.’ Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) asked if Cameron was intending to put up tuition fees if the Tories won the election.

Just 63 days to the election and Cameron sounded just a little desperate at prime minister’s questions today.


Sally Gimson is a journalist and Labour councillor in the London borough of Camden. She writes the PMQs on Progress column and tweets @SallyGimson