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.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.