PMQs review: Cameron is fading with the economy

It is becoming ever harder for the PM to defend Plan A.

Today's PMQs was not a good one for David Cameron. He held his own during his exchanges with Ed Miliband on Liam Fox but floundered on the economy. By the end, the man who spread the myth that Britain was on "the brink of bankruptcy", had resorted to accusing the Labour leader of "talking down the economy".

Yet the session did not begin unpromisingly for the Prime Minister. He batted away Miliband's questions on Fox, noting that the Defence Secretary had at least resigned over his behaviour, "not something that always happened in the last 13 years." It was precisely for this reason that Miliband struggled to land a blow on Cameron, only coming close when he noted that the PM had seen "his defence secretary resign in disgrace and his spin doctor arrested, is this what he meant by being different?" Cameron hit back: "If you're going to jump on a bandwagon, make sure that it's still moving."

In a tacit acknowledgment that the sting had gone from the story, Miliband devoted his remaining three questions to the economy. Here, he was on strong ground. Britain has one of the lowest rates of growth in Europe and one of the highest rates of inflation. Miliband repeated his favourite question: "does the Prime Minister still think his plan is working?" Refusing to give a direct answer, Cameron recited the stock explanations for high inflation "world food prices, world fuel prices, the depreciation of sterling". Miliband enjoys raising the subject of inflation because it gives him another chance to attack the coalition's VAT rise (which added 1.5 per cent to annual inflation), although it's worth noting that the UK would have above-average inflation even without this tax increase.

The Labour leader went on to repeat his new trick: identifying a government growth policy that is failing. Last week it was the National Insurance holiday, this week it was the Regional Growth Fund. The Treasury had issued 22 press releases on the fund but it had helped just two businesses. Yes, two. Across the floor, George Osborne looked as shocked and surprised as anyone. This is the second week in a row that Miliband has beaten Cameron on the economy (a subject he previously struggled on), a sign that it is becoming ever harder for the PM to defend Plan A.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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