PMQs review: Cameron’s sharp tongue runs wild

The Prime Minister launches attack after attack on Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.

David Cameron's new strategy director, Andrew Cooper, recently advised him to be "a national leader, rather than a party politician. Especially in the Commons." On the basis of today's PMQs, Cameron appears to have rejected that advice. He denounced Ed Miliband's weekend reference to the suffragettes as "nonsense", told one Labour MP: "I've no idea who you are", and described Ed Balls as "the most annoying person in modern politics".

Labour's Keynesian Rottweiler will have enjoyed that attack. It confirms that he has an unrivalled ability to infuriate the Tories.

The personal gibes began early on. After Cameron wished Miliband and his new fiancée a "long and happy life together", the Labour leader replied that he would ask the PM for "advice on stag nights", because he knows "how to organise a good one". To which the sharp-tongued Cameron responded, "When I was leader of the opposition I would have given anything for a honeymoon . . . he probably wishes he had, too."

The exchanges were memorable enough to overshadow some sharp questions from Miliband on tuition fees and police cuts.

Cameron was unable to tell the House how many universities so far plan to charge £9,000 a year (the answer is 18) and appeared not to know whether student numbers would be cut as a result of the £1bn black hole.

Instead, he made the irrelevant point that institutions will only be allowed to charge £9,000 if the Office for Fair Access approves. He shamelessly dodged the funding question.

Miliband also had the better of the exchanges on police cuts, with Cameron merely stating that there was "no reason why" there should be few officers. The PM in effect passed the buck and said that police numbers would not fall if local forces made greater efficiency savings. Cameron only managed to get the upper hand when he referred to the "ridiculous spectacle" of the Labour leader "marching against the cuts that his party caused".

It's also worth noting Cameron's comments on NHS funding. When the Labour MP Chris Leslie pointed out that higher inflation means the coalition is close to breaking its pledge to protect the health budget, Cameron simply replied: "We said we would increase health spending in real terms – and we will." In other words, spending will be raised to compensate for higher inflation. This is one promise that the PM intends to keep.

UPDATE: You can now watch footage of the Balls-Cameron clash above. (Hat-tip: Liar Politicians)

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

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