PMQs review: Miliband triumphs over the "comedians in the cabinet"

A brilliant Jimmy Carr joke made this an easy win for Miliband.

After Chloe Smith's disastrous interview on Newsnight last night, today's PMQs saw David Cameron suffer his own car-crash moment. In response to the government's latest U-turn on fuel duty, Ed Miliband dug out a brilliant quote from Cameron in which the Prime Minister declared that he would defend "every part" of the Budget having worked on it "line-by-line" with George Osborne. Cameron's response that "it cannot be a U-turn to get rid of a Labour tax increase" fell rather flat because it was a Tory one. He went on to boast that he had "defused" Labour's tax bombshells, rather forgetting his own "VAT bombshell" (in the words of the Lib Dems).

Today wasn't one of Miliband's best peformances but with the aid of Nadine Dorries (who attacked Osborne on Twitter over the Chloe Smith interview) and a brilliant joke about Jimmy Carr, he won an easy victory. Having previously tripped up by describing Dorries  as "frustrated", Cameron had no obvious riposte to the charge that his Chancellor was "a coward" as well as "arrogant", while Osborne, naturally, looked distinctly uncomfortable. The other high point came when Miliband asked Cameron why he had criticised tax avoidance while cutting taxes for millionaires. "It's one rule for the comedians on the stage and another for the comedians in the cabinet," he quipped. So good was the joke that Labour MPs cried "more! more!" as Miliband sat down.

Today's PMQs also offered us a preview of the line Cameron will take on Labour's stance on Lords reform. With the party pledged to vote against the procedural motion but in favour of the second reading, Cameron painted Miliband as a ditherer who was simultaneously for and against an elected chamber. This isn't true, of course, but Labour will need to find a succinct way to explain its opposition to the process but not the principle of Lords reform.

Labour leader Ed Miliband attacked Cameron's Budget U-turns at today's Prime Minister's Questions. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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