PMQs review: an unhappy return for Cameron

An irritable PM failed to land any significant blows on Ed Miliband.

The first PMQs of the new parliamentary term was not one that David Cameron will want to remember. From the start, he was tetchy, irritable and, as a result, largely unpersuasive. Rather than attacking the reshuffle as a "shift to the right", Ed Miliband chose to brand it the "no change reshuffle", highlighting the PM's failure to move George Osborne.

In response, Cameron declared: "I don't want to move my Chancellor, he can't move his shadow chancellor." Given Osborne's status as the most unpopular member of the cabinet, it was an odd boast. Earlier, referring to a report by the Daily Mail's Andrew Pierce that Miliband "is the the one who always buys coffee for Balls", Cameron sarcastically remarked that it showed how "assertive and butch" the Labour leader was. It was an odd jibe that pandered to his reputation as a bully and, at a time when the country is in recession, showed a lack of seriousness.

On the economy, Cameron pointed out that private sector employment had risen by 900,000 in the last two years (a misleading claim since 320,000 of those jobs were created under Labour) but with forecasters agreed that unemployment will rise significantly next year as public sector job cuts intensify, he won't be able to use this boast for long.

Another notable moment came at the end when Labour MP John McDonnell, who represents Hayes and Harlington, asked Cameron to confirm that there will be no third runway at Heathrow while he leads his party. Cameron replied that he wanted to reach cross-party agreement on the future of aviation policy, but added: "I will not be breaking my manifesto pledge". It was the clearest confirmation we've had that while no third runway will be built this parliament, it remains a serious option for the future.

David Cameron faced Ed Miliband today at the first PMQs of the new parliamentary term. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.