PMQs review: Miliband fights back – and wins

Cameron frustrated as Miliband pins him down on tuition fees.

After last week's debacle, Ed Miliband needed to put in a winning performance at today's PMQs and, thanks to some sharp questions on tuition fees, he did not disappoint.

Miliband began by asking the Prime Minister a simple question: "Will English students pay the highest fees of any public university in the industrialised world?" Cameron replied that the figures are "well known", but blundered by insisting they were higher still in the United States. Tuition fees are higher in the US only at private institutions.

As the exchanges continued, Cameron persistently returned to the point that Labour commissioned the Browne review, another odd response. That a government orders a review does not mean it is bound to accept its conclusions.

His claim that the Budget deficit made higher fees unavoidable was equally disingenuous. As the sixth-largest economy in the world, Britain can easily afford to fund free higher education through general taxation. In public expenditure terms, the UK spends just 0.7 per cent of its GDP on higher education, well below the OECD average of 1 per cent. The decision to triple fees is a political choice, not an economic necessity.

After Miliband's worst week since becoming Labour leader, it was a relief to see him display some much-needed wit. His sharp response to Cameron's "student politician" gibe will have impressed even some Tories: "I was a student politician, but I wasn't hanging around with people who were throwing bread rolls and wrecking restaurants." But get ready for the inevitable accusations of "class war".

Elsewhere, as he mocked the Lib Dems' four-way split on fees, he quipped: "If the Kremlin is spying on the Lib Dems, I'm not surprised. They want a bit of light relief."

By the end, Miliband was able to steal Cameron's own insult and declare triumphantly: "A week really is a long time in politics, not waving but drowning." It was a necessary admission that last week's session hadn't gone to plan. But if he can put in more performances like this, Miliband might just begin to win over some of his doubters.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.