PMQs review: Cameron and Miliband stick to the script

As the economy worsens, both leaders are holding out for eventual victory.

Fortunately for David Cameron, parliament was in recess when last week's terrible employment figures were published, but Ed Miliband was determined not to let him escape. Playing his favourite game of "ask the Prime Minister a question he doesn't know the answer to", Miliband asked Cameron how much long-term youth unemployment had risen by since he scrapped the Future Jobs Fund in March. Cameron didn't know the answer (77 per cent) but he did know that youth unmployment rose by 40 per cent under Labour and that David Miliband (a man he quotes at every available opportunity) had assured him that "this government did not invent the problem".

Miliband lamented the PM's complacency and urged him to tax bankers' bonuses to create a 100,000 jobs for young people. But Cameron hit back with a potent stat of his own. Labour, he claimed, had pledged to use the revenue from the tax for nine separate causes. It was "the bank tax that likes to say yes". The snappy soundbite roused the Tory benches but Miliband had a new line of his own. Cameron was blaming others again, it's his ABC - Anyone But Cameron. At least some Tory ministers will have discreetly nodded in agreement.

For the rest of the session, the two leaders stuck to the script. Miliband accused Cameron of treating unemployment as "a price worth paying to protect his failed plan", while Cameron asked why Labour alone believed that the solution to a debt crisis was more debt. What he omitted to mention was that his own government is set to borrow £109bn more than forecast at the time of the Spending Review. Labour's old charge that you can't have a credible deficit reduction plan without growth rings truer every day.

Cameron's response will be to argue that things would have been even worse under Labour, a claim that Miliband, in the absence of a time machine, can never wholly refute. Today's flat and repetitive exchanges were a reminder that the economic battle might not end in victory for one side but in a messy draw.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage