PMQs review: a narrow win for Miliband

Miliband embarrasses Cameron on growth but stumbles on Ed Balls and Andy Coulson.

To give David Cameron his due, he managed to say what George Osborne could not at today's PMQs. After his Chancellor's "leaves on the line" excuse for yesterday's disastrous growth figures, the Prime Minister admitted that the news was "disappointing" even when "you've excluded what the ONS say about the extreme weather".

Had Ed Miliband failed to get the better of the PM today, one could reasonably argue that he shouldn't be in the business of politics. And, with the exception of one notable misstep, he didn't fail.

Cameron repeated his mantra that "if you don't deal with your debts, you'll never have growth". To which the Labour leader, quick as a flash, shot back: "If you don't have growth, you'll never cut the deficit." Though few Conservatives will admit as much, the facts support Miliband. The deficit for 2009-2010 came in at £156.3bn (£21.7bn lower than the original Treasury forecast), a sign that Labour's policy of "going for growth" was beginning to fill the hole in the public finances.

The Prime Minister may have repeated his complaint that Miliband's lines were pre-scripted, but they were no less effective for it: "The difference was that when we left office, the economy was growing, now he's in office and it isn't", "He knows how to cut jobs but has no idea how to create them", and "It's hurting but it isn't working" (an inversion of John Major's memorable slogan "It hurt but it worked").

Cameron's insistence that we should be grateful that Britain is no longer linked with "countries like Greece and Ireland and Portugal" is less impressive when one recalls that the same man boasted that the recovery was gaining momentum under his government.

Miliband stumbled when he contrasted his wise decision to appoint Ed Balls as shadow chancellor with Cameron's foolish decision to cling to Andy Coulson. The PM was liberated to deliver his finest riposte since "son of Brown": if Miliband thinks Balls is such a good man, why didn't he appoint him in the first place?

Cameron just about shrugged off Miliband's claim that he is "arrogant" and "out of touch with people's lives", but it was the Labour benches who cheered when the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, resplendent in a double-breasted suit, invited the Prime Minister to endorse Margaret Thatcher's view that "there is no alternative". The PM squirmed in his seat but rose to provide Rees-Mogg with the answer he was looking for. Labour MPs were left to cheer the political equivalent of an own goal.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign. 

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation