Ed Miliband did not emerge from the final PMQs of this Parliament draped in glory – indeed, if the exchange was any indicator of how the Labour leader would perform in a one-on-one with David Cameron, then the prime minister may now regret refusing head-to-head debates with Miliband in the run up to the May election.
Miliband's defenders will point out he was undoubtedly set up. Chancellor George Osborne refused to rule out an increase in VAT after the next election five times during a Treasury Committee hearing and so when the Labour leader rose to take on Cameron at the prime minister's 146<sup>th PMQs on 25 March, he clearly smelled blood.
"On Monday the prime minister announced his retirement plans and he said it was because he believed in giving straight answers to straight questions. Now, after five years of Prime Minister's Questions, that was music to my ears. So here's a straight question: Will he not rule out a rise in VAT?" Miliband roared, cheered on by a raucous Labour bench.
"He's right, straight questions do deserve straight answers," Cameron retorted. "And the answer is 'yes'."
You could almost see the blood drain out of Miliband's face and it was the prime minister's turn to put his rival on the spot, asking his opposite number whether Labour would rule out an increase in national insurance.
"He'll have plenty of opportunity to ask questions after May 7," Miliband said but it escaped nobody that suddenly it was Labour that was dodging questions.
Labour is right to point out the Conservatives have been here before – Osborne raised VAT from 17.5% in 2010, reversing a campaign pledge not to – but Miliband's rhetoric about broken promises felt old. He was beaten and spent the rest of PMQs slumped on the bench.
Cameron's big attack
Cameron, on the other hand, had all the lines. First, he compared Miliband to Richard III, who earlier in March was interred in York, pointing out the Labour leader was not the first person to "do in a relative to get the top job and the country ended in chaos".
He then invited the Labour MP for Rochdale, Stephen Danczuk, to campaign for the Conservatives and hoped he would do more interviews, after the outspoken MP blasted Labour for its "north London view of the world" in an in interview with the New Statesman.
Finally, he trotted out the campaigning stalwart of recent weeks, once again accusing Miliband of seeking to ride to government on the coat tails of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has said it would support a Labour minority in return for heavy concessions.
"Never mind talking about lame ducks," he said, in response to a comment from Labour MP Stephen Pound, "I'm looking at Alex Salmond's poodle."
But even if Cameron – or at least his strategy and writing team – won the day, Labour can be consoled that other than the prime minister's showmanship and a cleverly planned – and borderline manipulative – tax bombshell, there was very little of substance revealed in the Commons.
The spectre of MPs laughing and, at one point, barking (in response to Cameron's poodle comment) felt crass at a time when 1.8 million Britons are unemployed and while the insertion of the phrase "long-term economic plan" into every conservative MP's question is clearly a marketing tactic in the run up to the election, it felt like a cynical device more akin to the speeches of Chinese leaders than elected British politicians.
Miliband will return to his "north London bubble" and lick his wounds, and the next time we see PMQs, it could be him answering the questions – or not, as the case may be.