PMQs review: Cameron flounders

Miliband has so far set the agenda on News International. A visibly flustered Cameron did little to

The accepted wisdom this week has been that the phone hacking crisis has allowed Ed Miliband to find his voice as leader of the opposition, and this was confirmed at today's PMQs.

Miliband was calm and confident, while David Cameron looked increasingly harried and flustered.

Miliband opened by asking whether Rebekah Brooks should resign -- an awkward point for Cameron given his well-documented personal friendship with her. His response was that she was "right to resign" and that this should have been accepted (according to some reports, she offered to resign). A huge positive for Miliband in this matter is that he is relatively "clean" when it comes to social relationships with the Murdoch clan - much more so than his brother, David, who is close to Elisabeth Murdoch and her husband Matthew Freud.

A second significant weak point for Cameron - and one that was raised repeatedly - is "the catastrophic error of judgement" he made in hiring Andy Coulson. Cameron repeated his defence that in this country you are "innocent until proven guilty". He added that he hired Coulson on the basis of assurances that he had not broken the law -- the same assurances made to police and a select committee. "If these assurances turn out not to be true then it's not just that he shouldn't have worked in government, but that he should face the full force of the law."

His discomfort on the issue was evident in his snarky response to Labour MP Rushanara Ali: "As I said before she wrote her question, or had it written..." As ever, Cameron falls back on nastiness when he is floundering.

Cameron's decision not to appear at this afternoon's debate on phone-hacking has also weakened his position. He indicated to Miliband last night that he would reply in person to the Labour leader - which in itself shows how nervous No 10 is that Cameron be left behind on the issue, as it is unusual for a Prime Minister to reply to an opposition day motion.

The fact that he will now not be present for the debate (Sir George Young, the Leader of the House, will respond in his place) gave Miliband some easy shots. "I look forward to debating this with the Leader of the House," he said. Cameron's only response was: "I think we should focus on the substance."

In moving early this weekend to condemn Rupert Murdoch and call for the BSkyB bid to be dropped, Miliband set the agenda, and Cameron knows it. He did little to gain back that lead today.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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