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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No, Christopher Hitchens did not convert to Christianity on his deathbed

From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one. 

The suggestion that atheist writer Christopher Hitchens converted on his deathbed was inevitable. When the evangelical Christian Larry Taunton appeared on Newsnight last week to discuss his new book, he suggested that “the Hitch” was “contemplating conversion” in his final days. The collective sigh from his fans was palpable.

That particular claim is uncontroversial. Of course Hitchens “contemplated” Christianity – to say so simply suggests he had an open mind. However, the book goes further, and claims that Hitchens began to doubt his convictions in his final days. Taunton writes that: “Publicly, he had to play the part, to pose, as a confident atheist. In private, he was entering forbidden territory, crossing enemy lines, exploring what he had ignored or misrepresented for so long.” The book is littered with similar insinuations that he was, so to speak, losing his faith. His close friends, those he wasn’t paid to spend time with as he was with Taunton, deny this completely.

Naturally, the book has sparked a host of rumours and junk articles that suggest he converted. Not one to let a cheap shot slide or leave an insinuation untouched, Hitchens was forward-thinking enough to not only predict these accusations, but deliver a perfect pre-buttal. When Anderson Cooper asked him, a short while before his death, whether he had reconsidered “hedging his bets”, he responded:

“If that comes it will be when I’m very ill, when I’m half demented either by drugs or by pain when I won’t have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumour later on, because these things happen and the faithful love to spread these rumours.”

If that isn’t enough, however, his wife has made clear in the strongest possible terms that talk of a softening on Christianity and a deathbed conversion is entirely untrue. “That never happened. He lived by his principles until the end. To be honest, the subject of God didn’t come up.”

The spreading of fallacious rumours of deathbed conversions by the religious is predictable because there is so much historical precedent for it. Many of history’s most famous atheists have suffered this fate, so, in a sense, Hitch has now been inducted into this hall of infamy alongside the likes of Darwin, Thomas Paine, and David Hume. In God is not Great, he wrote that “the mere fact that such deathbed ‘repentances’ were sought by the godly, let alone subsequently fabricated, speaks volumes of the bad faith of the faith-based.”

Now, not for the first time, Hitchens has fallen foul of this bad faith. After all, what can be more abhorrent than baying for a man to abandon his lifelong principles when he is at his most vulnerable, and spreading callous lies when he can no longer respond? It speaks for the complete lack of confidence these people must have in their beliefs that they strike when the individual is at their least lucid and most desperate.

Hitchens felt the bitter end of the religious stick when he was dying as well, and he responded with typical wit and good humour. He was told that it was “God’s curse that he would have cancer near his throat because that was the organ (he) used to blaspheme.” His response? “Well, I’ve used many other organs to blaspheme as well if it comes to that.” One suspects that he would have rubbished recent talk in a similarly sardonic fashion.

Likewise, for a man who was not afraid of a provocative title himself (see: The Missionary Position, No One Left to Lie to) it would be reasonable to think he’d accept his own life as fair game. From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one.

Fortunately, we are blessed with the wonders of the internet, and Hitchens can respond to these claims as Thomas Paine and David Hume could not – from the grave. His prediction and preparation for this speaks of an intellect like no other. In a posthumous debate he still wins out.