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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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