PMQs sketch: Ed launches class war

Dave on the ropes after Miliband goes for Tory jugular.

After 18 months in the doldrums Ed Miliband at last came up with a successful strategy today for taking on the Government -- munching on millionaires.

It may seem odd that the leader of the Labour Party has taken so long to remember its history but that only goes to show how deep Lord Mandelson's "relaxation" with the filthy rich had sunk its roots.

But having successfully snacked on Stephen Hester over the weekend and gorged on Fred Goodwin yesterday, Ed clearly had the taste as he popped into the House of Commons for what turned out to be a lunchtime feast at Prime Ministers Questions.

Having stared at them across the Chamber since the General Election, Ed finally came up with the collective noun for the Coalition Cabinet that has been escaping him for months: millionaires.

Someone somewhere on the Labour team had remembered a fascinating fact which appeared and then disappeared after the election -- that almost everyone sitting around the Cabinet table has more than a Hester-sized slice in the bank.

Standing up to face the head millionaire, otherwise known as the Prime Minister, Ed, buoyed up by giving Dave a good kicking in the loose change over the banks and Europe, was cheered so loudly by his side that he looked around to see who else had come in.

But he was the hero as he demanded Dave follow up on his pre-election pledge to name all those in the banks who would be trousering at least a million despite collapsing share prices and the continuing crisis. As this could be a list that could take several hours to spell out, Dave could only adopt the historical precedent at PMQs and remember there is nothing in its title about answers.

Having failed to get millionaire Dave to answer, Ed then named his millionaire buddy Chancellor George as someone else who said names should be named.

Talking about money always makes the well off uncomfortable and the Tory side of the House seemed uncharacteristically quiet as Ed deployed both hands to make his point.

With Labour members now beside themselves with unexpected elation, Ed introduced a charge not heard since Tony and his pals seized the commanding heights of the Labour Party twenty years ago and delivered it directly to Dave.

"The class war," he said, "is being led by him and his Cabinet of millionaires." It was impossible to tell if all the Front Bench had heard what he said over the noise from Ed's new fan base, but Dave recoiled on their behalf from phraseology he and they must have thought would only ever be heard from Denis Skinner (who himself could be forgiven for thinking he'd woken up in the wrong place).

It remains to be seen if class war is taken out again from its glass case in the Museum of Labour History, and it is hard to avoid the glee with which it will be received at the Daily Mail, but it certainly did the business today.

The Prime Minister, now clearly unnerved by the drubbing he was getting, tried to bounce back with a charge of "hypocrisy" against Ed -- but when your luck is out, it really is out.

Quick as a flash, Speaker Bercow, whose own relationship with Dave is less than warm, was out of his seat to announce that the word was unparliamentary and must be withdrawn.

With their man floundering on the ropes the usual suspects on the Tory benches desperately tried to come to his aid with a series of fixed questions on the benefits cap due for debate later.

Labour is much less sure-footed in this area but Ed quite happily ignored the Prime Minister's increasingly frustrated attempts to draw him in. Chancellor George meanwhile sat silent as both counted down the minutes to the final bell setting them free from the nightmare.

But Ed was not finished and popped up again to list everyone in the NHS who had now come out against the Government's non-reorganisation plan to re-organise the health service.

If millionaires are Dave's latest nightmare, the cock-up over the NHS has been keeping him awake for months, and Ed's reminder only served to push his above-the-collar hue right off the colour charts. It was the Prime Minister who famously said: "We are all in this together." All of a sudden, we are not.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.