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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.