PMQs review: a win for Miliband as Leveson looms

The Labour leader exposed the coalition's failure on the Work Programme.

Ahead of the release of the Leveson report tomorrow, today's PMQs was a nervy, ill-tempered affair. Ed Miliband devoted all six of his questions to the government's troubled Work Programme, declaring that David Cameron "got rid of a Labour programme that was working [the Future Jobs Fund] and replaced it with a Tory one that isn't". The facts were on Miliband's side. As he pointed out, just 2.3 per cent of those referred found a job for six months or more in the first year of the scheme. While the Future Jobs Fund helped 120,000 people into work, the Work Programme has helped just 3,000 people. And, since June 2011, long-term unemployment has risen by 96 per cent, a stat that Cameron, unable to refute, simply ignored.

But this wasn't quite the resounding victory that it should have been for Miliband. In a reference to yesterday's tempestuous cabinet meeting, he declared that ministers were "at each other like rats in a sack", to which Cameron artfully replied, "he worked in a government where the Prime Minister and the Chancellor couldn't even be in the same room as each other." The Labour leader's stop-start delivery (pausing to tell Tory MPs to "calm down" at one point) meant his final question lacked force. But Cameron's boilerplate response - "we're putting the country back to work, their party wrecked it" - suggested a man who had given up winning the argument.

In response to questions on Leveson (most of which came from Tory MPs concerned about press freedom), Cameron, who received a copy of the report today, emphasised the need for an "independent regulatory system in which the public can have confidence" but said nothing to suggest that he favours statutory regulation. He later added that "whatever the changes we make, we want a robust and a free press in this country". Miliband echoed Cameron's hope of reaching an all-party consensus, speaking of a "once in a generation opportunity for real change". But while Labour won't receive a copy of the report until tomorrow, Nick Clegg, like Cameron, already has one. In the event that consensus proves elusive, Clegg has approached the Speaker about the possibility of a separate Commons statement tomorrow.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said Cameron "got rid of a Labour programme that was working and replaced it with a Tory one that isn't". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.