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Wednesday 23rd May 2012 | 14:52
Let's be fair to him. The Prime Minister has every reason to be feeling a little tetchy.
He probably hasn't caught up on his sleep after that red eye special flight back from the US, while the hot weather never sits easily with a dark suit and long days in the office. Plus that pesky Vince Cable went and sharp-elbowed in an early rejection of a "bonkers" government-commissioned, prompting Adrian Beecroft, the report's author, into scatter-gunning his frustrations with the PM across the front pages. And Beecroft, when not authoring controversial reports into employment law, is a rather generous Tory donor – not the type of person a Tory leader needs as a public critic.
All things considered, it wouldn't take much to push the Prime Minister over the edge when he arrived for PMQs.
For Ed Balls, his personal tormentor-in-chief, a flick of the ear would have been enough, but sadly there's a few feet separating the Labour and Conservative front benches. Instead the shadow chancellor glares and gawps, gestures and guffaws, as he cruelly cajoles the prime minister into losing his thread or, even better, his temper.
Today, the latest addition to the shadow chancellor's implements of torture was a drip-drip encouragement, as he urged the PM to relax and enjoy a glass of wine, an unsubtle way of reminding Cameron that everyone thinks he is, well, a little too chillaxed.
Like a record stuck in a particularly irritating groove, Balls repeated his invitation endlessly. Finally, 27 minutes into the session, Cameron snapped, ending a meandering answer on the economy with a spat-out complaint against the "muttering idiot sitting opposite me". .
It was hard to see who was more delighted as all MPs roared their approval. Balls gave an encouraging thumbs-up gesture – a new one for his repertoire – to Cameron, while George Osborne slapped the PM on the back and looked dangerously close to splitting his sides at the hilarity of it all. The Speaker decided that 'idiot' was not Parliamentary language. Ok, Cameron replied, how about the "the man who left us with this enormous deficit and financial crisis." Balls looked thrilled with the accolade, and allowed himself the rest of the session off, no doubt to think of more ways to make the PM's life a misery.
He deserved the breather. It had been an impressively lengthy effort to get Cameron's fuse to blow. For while the sight of a coalition government falling out over a, er, government-commissioned report may be new territory, Beecroft's words fitted easily into a familiar script.
Miliband wheeled out the "nasty party line", Cameron accused him of being a slave to the Unions, Miliband said Cameron was in the pocket of big donors. Balls leapt up and down as the two leaders rattled through the motions at pace, eager to finish yet another round of cracking skulls against each other.
As for the report itself, Cameron praised "a good report and it is right that we take forward its best measures" – come back Mr Beecroft! - before reminding Miliband that he had reason to be worried "about being fired at will for being incompetent." Not bad, that one.
Well, Miliband replied, "when it comes to Andy Coulson and the culture secretary [Jeremy Hunt] it's all about second chances." Hunt, still banished from the front bench, shifted awkwardly on his feet in his temporary exile at the bar of the House.
Miliband then reminded everyone that the Lib Dems had called this a "bonkers" report. The collection of Lib Dems who aren't ministers nodded along enthusiastically; those who sit alongside the Tory colleagues in government, Nick Clegg and Cable included, simply didn't bother to turn up.
So it's not clearly just the idiots in opposition who mutter unhelpfully. Back in the coalition, there's more than enough muttering off stage to annoy the prime minister. Chillaxed? Not in the slightest.
SAM MACRORY IS POLITICAL EDITOR OF THE HOUSE MAGAZINE
23/11/2013 on Week in Westminster, BBC Radio 4
20/11/2013 on Channel 4 News
17/11/2013 on Sunday Politics, BBC One
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