PMQs review: Miliband's finest performance

The Labour leader finally found his voice today.

Does Ed Miliband, like Tony Blair and David Cameron, perform best when his back is against the wall? On the basis of today's PMQs, the answer is yes. This was the Labour leader's finest performance for months. Rarely has he sounded so passionate and authentic on the economy. He tore into Cameron and George Osborne ("a byword for self-satisfied smug complacency") with cathartic force and the Prime Minister was visibly unnerved.

And why wouldn't he be? The economy is shrinking, unemployment is heading towards three million and the national debt has reached £1 trillion. Yet as recently as June 2010, Osborne was promising a "a steady and sustained economic recovery, with low inflation and falling unemployment". Cameron reeled off a litany of traditional excuses ("the overhang of the debt and the deficit", "higher food and fuel prices", "the crisis in the eurozone") but was unable to rebut the central charge that his policies have only made things worse. He accused Miliband of failing to take responsibility for Labour's "mess" but soon he will be forced to take responsibility for his own.

Some will question why Miliband chose to split his questions - the final three were on the NHS - when he had Cameron on the ropes. But it was the right decision. The NHS, which, lest we forget, employs 1.4 million people, is once again becoming a headache for the coalition and Miliband seized an opportunity to heighten the pain. Noting that the Prime Minister had boasted last September that his reforms were supported by GPs and nurses, the Labour leader asked him to provide "an update on the support for his bill from the medical profession."

With the British Medical Association, the Royal College of GPs, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy all now calling for the bill to be dropped, Cameron could only cite the support of a lone GP in Doncaster. "What is good for Doncaster, is good for the rest of the country," he declared in a farcical riff.

The reality, as Miliband said, is that 98 per cent of GPs want the bill withdrawn. Once again denouncing Cameron's "arrogance" (a charge that has clearly been focus-grouped), he urged the PM to keep at least one promise and put an end to this "top-down reorganisation". Cameron, visibly beaten, scorned Labour for caving into the "trade unions" but he may yet regret picking a fight with the most powerful of them all.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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