PMQs review: Don't mention the economy

Ed Miliband avoids the economy at PMQs following the publication of Darling's book.

The most notable thing about today's PMQs was what Ed Miliband didn't ask about. The publication of Alistair Darling's memoir, in which the former chancellor argues that Labour lacked a "credible" economic policy at the last election, meant Miliband steered clear of the economy. And he paid for it. Following Miliband's final question, Cameron cried: "Isn't it interesting that he doesn't dare, in six questions, mention the economy". For a minute, at least, it seemed as if Cameron regarded the economy as a strong suit for the coalition. But of course, with Britain facing a period of anaemic growth, at best, and a double-dip recession at worst, the reverse is true. With Osborne admitting that growth will be downgraded again, while hinting that he will cut taxes for the richest 1 per cent, Miliband had a perfect opportunity to challenge the coalition's strategy. And he bottled it.

Instead, he led with a question on elections for police commissioners, an odd choice of subject but an example of his new focus on wasteful public spending. The £100m that Cameron plans to spend on commissioners would pay for 2,000 extra police officers, the Labour leader said. Cameron unconvincingly replied that the "figures were completely wrong" but clawed back some ground when he noted that the last Labour government also promised to introduce elected police representatives. "Why the U-turn?," he knowingly quipped.

There followed an unmemorable exchange on the NHS during which Cameron failed to address the fact that the number of people waiting more than six months for an operation had risen by 60 per cent under the coalition. As is customary on such occasions, he quoted the shadow health secretary, John Healey, but, for the first time, accurately so. Healey, Cameron noted, had admitted that "what Labour says matters less than what almost anyone else says". As Alastair Campbell has observed, the problem for Labour is that these days it is "the third most interesting party".

But it was Nadine Dorries who provided the most amusing moment when, antagonised by Cameron's opposition to her abortion amendment, she demanded to know when the Prime Minister would tell "the Deputy Prime Minister who's boss?" Cameron replied: "I know the honourable lady is extremely frustrated", a choice of words that provoked childish laughter across the House. Having lost his composure, Cameron eventually gave up. Nick Clegg, flattered by Dorries's testimony to Lib Dem influence, flashed a rare smile.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.