PMQs review: Cameron is losing the economic argument

The PM could not rebut Miliband's charge that his growth strategy is failing.

Never has David Cameron's defence of the government's economic strategy sounded as weak as it did at today's PMQs. Ed Miliband devoted all six of his questions to the subject and came off better each time. Confronted by the worst unemployment figures since 1994, the Prime Minister could only repeat his tired insistence that a change of course would bankrupt Britain.

"You cannot borrow your way out of a debt crisis," he declared but as Miliband reminded him, "to have a credible plan on the deficit, he has to have a credible plan on growth". George Osborne has already been forced to announce £44.4bn of extra borrowing due to lower tax revenues and higher welfare payments.

Cameron hurled criticisms of Labour's economic policy at Miliband, citing Charles Clarke, Alistair Darling and, finally, Digby Jones (which doesn't even qualify as an argument from authority). The Prime Minister, it seems, is taking refuge in consensus. But as any student of the Herbert Hoover administration knows, the received wisdom of the day is often wrong. Cameron should derive no comfort from the endorsement of others. His failure to rebut Miliband's central charge that the government's growth strategy is failing was a sign that he is losing the argument.

Sounding unfortunately bunged up, Miliband still landed several blows on the PM. Reminding him that 400,000 firms were expected to take part in Osborne's National Insurance holiday, he forced a blushing Cameron to admit that just 7,000 had, before neatly seguing into the Liam Fox story. Cameron, he said, was doing everything he could to save the Defence Secretary's job but doing nothing to save the jobs of ordinary men and women."It's one rule if you're in the cabinet, it's another rule for everyone else," he cried.

Asked by Labour MP Pat Glass if a minister should resign if he or she breaks the ministerial code, Cameron replied that it was up to the Prime Minister to decide, confirming that he does not view a breach as grounds for automatic dismissal. He shows every sign of wanting to hold on to Fox but insisted that he would await the conclusion of Gus O'Donnell's investigation. But with the economic situation only likely to worsen, the Defence Secretary's troubles will soon be the least of Cameron's worries.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.