PMQs review: a win for Cameron as he ridicules "predistribution"

The Labour leader's big idea is dangerously vulnerable to mockery.

David Cameron, a man not known for his attention to detail, armed himself with several powerful statistics at today's PMQs. Private sector employment, he boasted, had risen by a million since the election, while the deficit had fallen by a quarter. In response, Ed Miliband pointed out that borrowing is already 25 per cent (£9.3bn) higher than at this point last year, with George Osborne set to abandon his golden debt rule.

Cameron, naturally, replied that, if Miliband was so worried about borrowing, why did he want to increase it? Miliband should have replied that while Labour would borrow for growth, the Tories are borrowing due to recession. But, perhaps fearing that PMQs wouldn't allow for an explanation of Keynes's paradox of thrift, he simply declared that borrowing was "rising on his [Cameron's] watch". It was at this point that Cameron turned his attention to "predistribution", the zeitgeisty concept Miliband discussed in his speech last week. It meant he said, borrowing a quip from Danny Alexander, that "you spend the money before you actually get it, and I think you'll find that's why we're in the mess we're in right now." Seated next to Miliband, Ed Balls, who yesterday described "predistribution" as "a good idea looking for a good label", looked visibly unnerved.

As a result, Miliband's next question - "Is he going to be a beneficiary of the 50p tax cut?" - couldn't help sounding rather desperate. Cameron failed to answer it, just as he failed to say whether the government would rip up its debt target, but his replies were sufficiently strong for this to be of little consequence.

The man who invented predistribution, Joseph Hacker, had, Cameron observed, written a book called The Road To Nowhere. But Miliband "didn't need to read it, he's there already." Rather optimistically, the Labour leader again asked the PM whether he would benefit from the abolition of the 50p rate ("a question he will have to answer between now and April"). But, today at least, buoyed by the cheers of Tory MPs, Cameron could happily ignore him.

Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in central London, on September 5, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.