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.

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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

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