Mehdi Hasan's PMQs review: Miliband bests Cameron over phone-hacking

It was a bravura performance from the Labour leader.

Those of us who have long argued that Ed Miliband has a steely side and shouldn't be underestimated or written off are feeling rather pleased with ourselves this afternoon.

Miliband chewed up and spat out David Cameron in one of his finest performances at the despatch box so far, leaving the Prime Minister in full "Flashman" mode: testy, irritated, veins near bulging point, getting pinker and pinker with each irate and defensive answer.

The session was a game of two halves: the first had Miliband quiet, serious, speaking on behalf of the public, asking for a public inquiry into hacking -- and getting one! -- and expressing disgust with the latest phone-hacking allegations. The second half saw him go after Cameron personally, calling on the Prime Minister to join him in demanding the resignation of the News International boss, Rebekah Brooks -- a close personal friend and regular dining parter of Cameron -- denouncing the PM's decision to employ the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his director of communications (a post from which Coulson resigned only in January) and urging the coalition government to refer Rupert Murdoch's bid to buy all of BSkyB to the Competition Commission.

Ahead of PMQs, the BBC's deputy political editor, James Landale, observed:

Ed Miliband has two options in terms of tactics on hacking. He can choose to be political, attacking David Cameron over his judgement in employing Andy Coulson, or he can position himself as the voice of the people, focusing on the public revulsion at some of the most recent revelations.

The Labour leader threw out the rule book and decided to do both. It worked. Cameron spent much of the exchange on the defensive, unable to offer convincing answers or rebuttals and falling back on the tired and now discredited response of: "Let the police do their work." The verdict of the political Twitterati was in before he'd sat down after his last question: Ed Miliband 1, David Cameron 0.

Here's the Sky News political editor, Adam Boulton:

PMQs: EM wipes the floor with DC on #phonehacking #NotW #Skymerger. DC backs inquiries but ducks on Rebekah, Coulson and merger referral

Here's his Sky News colleague Jon Craig:

Ed Miliband's best PMQs yet? The view of a few of us in the Press Gallery. Well argued, calm, reasoned. Had Cameron on defensive & rattled.

Here's the ITV News political editor, Tom Bradby:

He was stronger, more confident, more authoritative and more convincing than he has ever been. He may just have saved his leadership.

And then there's Charlie Brooker, who asked:

Who knew Miliband had a "Hulk" mode?

A simple answer: James Macintyre and I did.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.