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.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.