PMQs review: a win for Miliband as Cameron slips up on food banks

"I never thought the big society was about feeding hungry children in Britain," Miliband tells Cameron.

The final PMQs of the year is always a daunting occasion for both party leaders; a poor performance risks their MPs going home for Christmas disgruntled with their leadership. Last year, a duff joke about coalition disunity sunk Ed Miliband as David Cameron quipped, "It's not that bad, it's not like we're brothers or anything". This year, happily for the Labour leader, there was no repeat.

After asking Cameron to update the Commons on British operations in Afghanistan, Miliband turned to the subject of food banks, asking the PM whether he was concerned that they had increased six-fold in the last three years. Cameron responded by ill-advisedly hailing food bank volunteers as part of the "big society", prompting Miliband to reply, in one of his best lines for weeks, "I never thought the big society was about feeding hungry children in Britain."

Cameron attempted to defend the coalition's record by pointing to the council tax freeze and the increase in the personal allowance as evidence of the action he had taken to protect living standards. But in a reminder of just how politically toxic the decision to cut the top rate of tax remains, Miliband replied that Cameron had imposed a "strivers' tax" on low and middle income families (a reference to George Osborne's plan to uprate tax credits by just 1 per cent over the next three years), whilst giving an average tax cut of £107,500 to people earning over a million pounds a year. Expect Labour to take every opportunity to remind the public of this fact ahead of the official introduction of the reduced top rate (50p to 45p) in April.

Finding his stride, Miliband said Cameron was "back to his old ways" after reports that he had an "intense conversation" with Rebekah Brooks last weekend. "No doubt they're both looking forward to the Boxing Day hunt," he added. Miliband ended by declaring that no one now believed Cameron could be a "one nation" prime minister, to which Cameron, in a flash of wit, replied: "it wouldn't be Christmas without the repeats." He ended by turning to what remains his strongest suit - the deficit - accusing Miliband of offering more of the "something-for-nothing culture that got us into this mess in the first place."

Both leaders played to their strengths today. While polls show that the public believe that the coalition is cutting too far, too fast, they also show that they continue to regard the cuts as necessary and blame Labour more than the coalition for them. The economic debate is finely poised. The next year will begin to show in whose favour it will be resolved.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said David Cameron could never be a "one nation" prime minister. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.