PMQs review: Cameron claws back some ground

The PM's performance will have settled some Tory nerves.

Ahead of David Cameron's appearance at the Leveson inquiry tomorrow, Ed Miliband led on Jeremy Hunt at today's PMQs, the first for three weeks. Asked why he had referred Baroness Warsi to Alex Allan, the independent adviser on ministers' interests, but not Hunt, Cameron gave his stock reply that a "judge-led inquiry" was gathering all the information behind the Culture Secretary's case. As scripted, Miliband then pointed to Hunt's likely multiple breaches of the ministerial code. But Cameron had a trump card - he produced a letter from Allan in which the latter concluded: "The fact that there is an on-going judicial Inquiry probing and taking evidence under oath means that I do not believe I could usefully add to the facts in this case". Yet Allan isn't required to "add to the facts", rather, he needs to rule on whether Hunt broke the ministerial code. One might also note that Allan lacks the power to trigger his own investigation (as Allan told Cameron, Hunt's adherence to the Ministerial Code is "a matter for you".) Thus, the letter does little to bolster Cameron's defence but it still allowed him, however briefly, to regain the initiative.

Miliband recovered well after this surprise, challenging Cameron to explain why, if his case is so strong, his deputy is not supporting him. To which the PM candidly replied: "I understand, it's politics." It was a neat riposte that Cameron might want to use again. At this point, Miliband remarked of Cameron: "I have to say he's reached a new state of delusion, he just wants to talk about the past." In anticipation of the words to follow ("He was the future once", Cameron's famous jibe against Blair), Miliband was interrupted by barracking from MPs, and when he eventually delivered the line it fell terribly flat.

Given the extent of the government's woes, Cameron will be relieved to have emerged largely unscathed from today's session. Miliband's surprising decision not to ask a question about the economy meant the PM was not required to defend the coalition's weakest point. As Cameron left the chamber he was patted on the back by George Osborne, both men satisfied by a performance that will have settled some Tory nerves.

David Cameron insisted he was right not to refer Jeremy Hunt to the adviser on ministers' interests. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Brexiteers have lost battles but they are still set to win the war

The prospect of the UK avoiding Brexit, or even a “hard” version, remains doubtful. 

Before the general election, the Brexiteers would boast that everything had gone their way. Parliament had voted to trigger Article 50 by a majority of 372. The Treasury-forecast recession hadn't occurred. And polls showed the public backing Brexit by a comfortable margin

But since the Conservatives' electoral humbling, the Leavers have been forced to retreat on multiple fronts. After promising in May that the dispute over the timetable for the Brexit talks would be "the fight of the summer", David Davis capitulated on the first day.

The UK will be forced to settle matters such as EU citizens' rights, the Irish border and the divorce bill before discussions begin on a future relationship. Having previously insisted that a new trade deal could agreed by 29 March 2019 (Britain's scheduled departure date), the Brexiteers have now conceded that this is, in Liam Fox's words, "optimistic" (translation: deluded). 

That means the transitional arrangement the Leavers once resisted is now regarded as inevitable. After the eradication of the Conservatives' majority, the insistence that "no deal is better than a bad deal" is no longer credible. No deal would mean the immediate return of a hard Northern Irish border (to the consternation of the Tories' partners the DUP) and, in a hung parliament, there are no longer the votes required to pursue a radical deregulatory, free market agenda (for the purpose of undercutting the EU). As importantly for the Conservatives, an apocalyptic exit could pave the way for a Jeremy Corbyn premiership (a figure they previously regarded as irretrievably doomed). 

Philip Hammond, emboldened by the humiliation of the Prime Minister who planned to sack him, has today outlined an alternative. After formally departing the EU in 2019, Britain will continue to abide by the rules of the single market and the customs union: the acceptance of free movement, European legal supremacy, continued budget contributions and a prohibition on independent trade deals. Faced with the obstacles described above, even hard Brexiteers such as Liam Fox and Michael Gove have recognised that the game is up.

But though they have lost battles, the Leavers are still set to win the war. There is no parliamentary majority for a second referendum (with the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats still enfeebled), Hammond has conceded that any transitional arrangement would end by June 2022 (the scheduled date of the next election) and most MPs are prepared to accept single market withdrawal. The prospect of Britain avoiding Brexit, or even a "hard" version, remains doubtful. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.