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.

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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