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.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.