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
Show Hide image

Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.