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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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