PMQs review: Miliband edges a stale contest

The Labour leader found his stride after declaring that Cameron was "a PR man who can't even do a relaunch".

The first PMQs of the year was a rather unenlightening affair, with both David Cameron and Ed Miliband falling back on their stock attack lines. Miliband accused Cameron of breaking his promises on the economy and the NHS, Cameron accused Miliband of having no plan to reduce the deficit or to reform welfare.

The revelation in today's Telegraph that a government audit of coalition pledges was held back to prevent "difficult points" overshadowing "favourable coverage" of the coalition's Mid-Term Review gave Miliband an easy way in. But the Labour leader initially struggled to draw blood. Rather than pinning Cameron down on detail (as he could have done over the Welfare Uprating Bill), Miliband's questions allowed the Prime Minister to reiterate the coalition's superficially impressive record: the deficit has been reduced by a quarter (but only at the cost of pushing the economy back into recession), immigration has been reduced by a quarter (another policy that has strangled growth) and a million new private sector jobs have been created (196,000 of which were simply reclassified from the public sector).

Cameron went on to perform his own "audit" of Miliband's promises, declaring that he had failed to deliver on his commitments to offer a credible deficit reduction plan, "proper reform of welfare" and a new policy on tuition fees. It was cheap politics (Miliband has never promised this level of detail before 2015) but it roused the Tory backbenches. Miliband countered stongly, however, with his best line of the session: "he's a PR man who can't even do a relaunch." He went on to declare that "the nasty party is back", an attempt to capitalise at the unease among some Conservatives at George Osborne's strivers/scroungers dividing line. Cameron replied that Miliband has "a shadow chancellor who he won't back but can't sack", an attempt to stoke speculation about Ed Balls's position after David Miliband's bravura speech on the welfare bill, viewed by some as a job application for the shadow chancellorship.

The Prime Minister left one notable hostage to fortune in the session. In response to a question on fox hunting, Cameron replied: "I have never broken the law and the only little red pests I pursue are in this House." That line is an invitation to every journalist in the country to identify occasions on which he may well have broken the law. As Cameron once conceded, "I did things when I was young that I shouldn't have done."

Ed Miliband declared at today's Prime Minister's Questions that "the nasty party is back". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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