Cameron comes unstuck on Europe

"I'm not making a great claim to have achieved a safeguard," PM forced to admit.

After Nick Clegg's appearance yesterday, it was David Cameron's turn on the Today programme this morning (the Ed Miliband vacuum remains a mystery). On the economy, he attributed the UK's woes to the eurozone crisis and "stubbornly high" inflation (partly, of course, due to the 2.5 per cent increase in VAT). Cameron pointed to government support for the economy such as "boosting the number of apprenticeships" but said nothing to suggest that the government has any new ideas to combat the likely double-dip recession.

But it was on Europe that the Prime Minister came unstuck. Challenged by Evan Davis to explain what his "veto" actually prevented other EU member states from doing, Cameron was unable to say. "I'm not making a great claim to have achieved a safeguard," he was forced to concede.

Cameron was unable to guarantee that members of the fiscal union would be blocked from using the EU's institutions, only saying that the legal position was "unclear". But the suspicion among eurosceptics, as ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie writes this morning, is that the presence of Nick Clegg means Britain is unable to "enforce the implications of David Cameron's veto.

The interview ended on a lighter note, with Cameron asked to turn film critic and give his opinion of The Iron Lady. He praised a "really staggering" piece of acting from Meryl Streep but said he was saddened that the film was "much more about ageing and dementia than about an amazing Prime Minister". "Why do we have to have this film right now?," he asked, the implication being that it was indecent to portray the decline of a living former prime minister.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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