PMQs review: Cameron catches Miliband off guard

A rare moment of honesty from the PM on forestry blunts Labour leader’s attack.

A cocktail of economic woes – high inflation, no growth and high unemployment – meant that Ed Miliband should have walked today's PMQs. And, initially at least, he did. In response to the highest youth unemployment figures since 1992, all David Cameron would say was that the figures were "a matter of great regret".

Miliband went on to recall that the PM once described the Future Jobs Fund (which will be scrapped next month) as a "good scheme" and said that he had been "inspired by what he saw". Cameron's persistent retort that youth unemployment was high throughout Labour's time in office only drew attention to the fact that the coalition has made a bad situation worse.

The Labour leader, sporting a new buzz cut, inevitably raised the Tories' City internship auction, but Cameron responded by recalling Miliband's own internships (courtesy of his father) with Tony Benn and the "deputy leader of the Labour Party". This dubious line of attack was marred by Cameron's distinctly unprogressive pay-off: "No wonder he's so left-wing, so politically correct" (although the otherwise muted Tory benches cried: "More! More!").

It was when Miliband turned to forestry that he came unstuck. Asked if he was happy with his government's policy, Cameron disarmingly replied: "The short answer to that is – no." He added that he was merely holding a consultation on the subject. The Labour leader was caught off guard, and his pre-prepared attack lines ("The man who made the tree the Tory party logo now wants to cut them down") fell flat.

Cameron's quip that Miliband "wrote his questions before he heard the answers" was smart enough to make up for his cringe-making remark that "the bandwagon has hit a tree". The lesson was a simple one: sometimes, it pays to be honest.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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.