PMQs review: Cameron's Europe headache swells

In the Commons at least, Miliband has much to gain by banging on about Europe.

"We've been here 33 minutes," noted David Cameron at one point in today's PMQs. One senses that the Prime Minister doesn't enjoy it when his weekly inquisition overruns. Europe has become a headache for him, like all his recent predecessors, and Ed Miliband has every intention of exploiting this fact.

The Labour leader asked Cameron an admirably succinct question: what powers will he seek to repatriate at this week's EU summit? After all, six weeks ago, at the height of the EU rebellion, Cameron told his backbenchers that a treaty renegotiation would give him a chance to do just that. But the PM, waffling on about "safeguards" and "the national interest", offered nothing resembling an answer. As Miliband concluded: "the more he talked, the more confusing his position was."

He went on: "why does the Prime Minister think it's in the national interest to tell his backbenchers one thing ... and to tell his European partners another?" Cameron responded, as he always does, by going on the attack. It was Labour that "surrendered" powers to Brussels and that would take us into the euro (had he not heard Ed Balls tell the House that Britain would not join the single currency in his "lifetime"?). It is indicative of Cameron's woes that he now prefers to attack than to defend. The simple fact of the coalition means that he is in a lose-lose position on Europe. He can't say which powers he wants back because to do so would enrage either the Lib Dems or the Tories (or both). Miliband's quip that Cameron promised his backbenchers a "hand-bagging" but was now just offering "hand-wringing" was devastating because it was true. No fewer than eight Tory MPs asked Cameron about Europe and not one of them received a satisfactory answer.

But the Labour leader was notably less effective when he attacked the autumn statement for taking three times as much from the poorest third as from the richest third. He criticised Cameron for delaying a new tax on private jets (which would raise just £5m a year) but Cameron shot back: "he had 13 years to tax private jets and now some former leaders are jetting around in them." In apparent desperation, Ed Balls thrust an IFS decile graph in Cameron's direction. But while the facts are on Labour's side, the politics aren't (yet). For now, in the Commons at least, Miliband has much to gain by banging on about Europe.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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