This was David Cameron's first opportunity to bash Ed Balls since the shadow chancellor's autumn statement howler last week. Britain was in for a masterclass in bullying bravado.
It was already an especially rowdy affair. MPs showed their enthusiasm for a fight by the ridiculously over-exaggerated way in which they roared approval for Christopher Pincher, a fairly anonymous Conservative MP. Their cheers as Ed Miliband stood up were, for no particular reason, equally preposterous. It was like those famous-person-enters-in-sitcoms scenario — instant undeserved acclaim. Only in the Commons, the positive nature of the welcome is a little more in doubt.
Ed Miliband made sure the session had a class subtext as he picked up on George Osborne's most controversial remark in last week's autumn statement — that it's not fair that some people have to go to work in the morning while others get a lie-in. Miliband argued, correctly, that the hard workers of Britain are suffering as a result of the coalition's changes. The night-shift factory worker, the hard-pressed nurse, they're the ones who suffer, he pressed. "It's the cleaner who cleans the chancellor's office while his curtains are still drawn and he's still in bed," Miliband continued, who's losing out. What a shame that Osborne was nowhere to be seen.
Ed Balls, whose constant heckling is never far from getting a bite from the PM, landed a big one this lunchtime. There was a sense this one from Cameron was pre-prepared. "I'm surprised the shadow chancellor is shouting again this week because we learned last week like bullies all over the world" — instant uproar from Tory MPs — "he can dish it out but HE CAN'T TAKE IT!"
The moment continued, on and on. It was the indifference on Cameron's face that made his contempt so plain. Its lazy, insouciant indifference only seemed to make his scorn all the more biting.
Balls was leaning forward, sticking out what looked like a complicated economics graph at the prime minister. It looked like a useful prop in an emergency. Perhaps he carries some sort of graph around all the time, so he can use it when engaged in spats with party officials, or the wife. It did not prove so useful here. Cameron is a natural at displaying the utter disdain of the school bully.
Miliband, whose schoolboy persona is that of the insufferable swot who likes to make the teacher uncomfortable by pointing out her spelling mistakes, had a kneejerk response ready to go. Things have come to a pretty pass, he suggested, "when the boy from the Bullingdon Club lectures people on bullying!" Miliband was grinning cheekily from ear to ear. "Absolutely extraordinary. Has he wrecked a restaurant recently?" The Labour frontbenches crackled their approval as Ed sat down, feeling all the pride of a geek who has been naughty — and become more popular as a result.
This would have been a victory on points for Cameron if he had not attempted a weaker version of the same attack later in the session. During the middle of a rather boring answer, he stopped to observe: "I think the leader of the opposition is catching the disease from the shadow chancellor of not being able to keep his mouth shut for more than five minutes." The remark was pointless, nowhere near barbed enough to make Miliband feel uncomfortable. It merely demonstrated the prime minister was struggling to keep his cool because of the pesky politicians opposite. Bad news if any eagle-eyed voters are paying attention to these subtle nuances, we must conclude.
In fact, the public are not really paying attention any more; it is only the Budget and autumn statement that really gets cut-through to the voters. That is bad news for Balls. As a poll released this lunchtime shows, he has lost his lead over Osborne in being seen as the most capable chancellor. An eight-point advantage has evaporated since the Budget, leaving exactly 34% of people preferring Balls and 34% preferring Osborne. Nothing to separate them, then. Much like this week's PMQs: squabbling schoolboys exhibiting infantile behaviour, regardless of party.