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.