PMQs review: Cameron stands by his man (that's Adrian Beecroft)

"You love the rich"; "you love the unions"; repeat, ad infinitum

It was a lively contest at PMQs today, with the Battle of Beecroft dominating Ed Miliband’s attack.

The Labour leader opened with a direct question. He said that Adrian Beecroft wants the law changed so that people can be fired at will, while the Business Secretary thinks this is “bonkers”. Who does David Cameron agree with? The Prime Minister evaded, saying that the government wants to make it easier for firms to expand.

The Beecroft report has become something of a political hot potato, so it’s interesting that Cameron did not separate himself from it – indeed, quite the contrary. He pointed out that he commissioned it, and said “It was a good report and it is right that we take forward its best measures”. Whether this is to pacify major donor Beecroft or the restive backbenches, or whether he genuinely stands by the report, we cannot know.

As Miliband went hard on the no fault dismissal issue, Cameron, lacking a strong argument with which to respond, fired back the obvious gag: “He’s afraid of being fired at will for being incompetent”.

The amount of time that the Labour leader dedicated to attacking Cameron on the report is telling, and could indicate not just an attempt to capitalise on tensions within the coalition, but to highlight possible areas of Lib-Lab co-operation.

Apart from these tactical concerns, it feeds very easily into the “out of touch Tories” narrative, and perhaps Miliband’s strongest line was this: “Millions of people are scared about their jobs and the Prime Minister’s response is to make it easier to sack them”. He drew an effective contrast between ordinary families fearing for their livelihoods and Cameron’s assertion last week that things are moving in the right direction.

However, calling the Tories out of touch was never going to take Cameron by surprise, and the Prime Minister, armed with numbers about union donations, gave as good as he got. He said that Miliband is getting £900,000 from Unite, which is threatening a bus drivers' strike during the Olympics. His answer to the out of touch charge was that “there are two parties over here acting in the national interest, and another one acting in the unions’ interest.”

Miliband had a clear answer to this, pointing out that rich Tory party donors stood to gain from the 50p tax cut: “Tax cuts for millionaires, making it easier to sack people – the nasty party is back”. As my colleague Rafael Behr has just blogged, government is worried that no fault dismissal could prove to be just as toxic as cutting 50p tax has proven to be.

This was a spirited and focussed sparring match, but ultimately it boiled down (as it so very often does – this is PMQs, after all) to glorified name calling and finger pointing. You love the rich; you love the unions; repeat, ad infinitum. Overall, probably a minor win for Miliband, but it was a very close match.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.