PMQs review: Miliband's most confident performance yet

The Labour leader is finally starting to sound like a prime minister-in-waiting.

Rarely has Ed Miliband appeared as commanding as he did at today's PMQs. A telling moment came when, as David Cameron feebly attempted to deflect a question on last week's botched energy announcement, Miliband quipped: "If he wants to swap places, I'm very happy to do so." The Labour leader is finally starting to sound like a prime minister-in-waiting. He followed that up with a fine joke about "the great train snobbery": "It's not the ticket that needs upgrading, it's the Chancellor".

After struggling with questions on the energy shambles and the West Coast Mainline fiasco, Cameron, sounding ever more like Gordon Brown, implored Miliband to "talk about the real issues". In an effective riff, he declared: "inflation - down, unemployment - down, crime -  down, waiting lists - down, borrowing - down." Cameron added, in what sounded like an allusion to tomorrow's growth figures (which he will have seen), that "the good news will keep coming". But if, as expected, Britain officially exits recession tomorrow, he should be wary of boasting too much. The Q3 figures will be artificially inflated by the bounce back from the extra bank holiday in the previous quarter (which reduced growth by an estimated 0.5 per cent) and by the inclusion of the Olympic ticket sales (which are expected to add around 0.2 per cent to GDP). So, if the ONS announces that the economy grew by 0.8 per cent in the third quarter, the underlying rate of growth will be just 0.1 per cent. In addition, many forecasters expect the economy to contract in the fourth quarter. Cameron could soon have a "triple-dip recession" on his hands.

It was a Labour MP who eventually asked the question that is preoccupying Tory minds today: will the government grant prisoners the right to vote? Cameron's unambiguous response was that "prisoners are not getting the vote under this government", with the PM suggesting that MPs could vote again on the matter. His words leave the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, who this morning argued that the government should comply with the European Court of Human Right's ruling on the subject, distinctly lacking in authority.

Ed Miliband addresses a TUC anti-cuts rally last weekend in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.