PMQs review: professor Miliband gives Cameron an economics lesson

The Labour leader had the stats on his side but will voters accept his distinction between 'good' borrowing and 'bad' borrowing?

It's often forgotten that Ed Balls isn't the only economist on the Labour frontbench; Ed Miliband also taught the subject at Harvard while on sabbatical from the Treasury and he gave David Cameron a suitably stern lesson at today's PMQs. In a stat-heavy assault on the coalition's economic record, he reminded Cameron that the economy had grown by just 0.4 per cent since October 2010 (it was expected to grow by more than five per cent), that the UK had grown more slowly than 17 of the G20 countries and that this was now the weakest recovery for more than a hundred years. 

Confronted by that record, Cameron played a bad hand as well as he could. He was aided by Labour MPs who foolishly cheered when he conceded that the economy shrank by 0.3 per cent in the most recent quarter, an error that the PM quickly pounced on. "Only honourable members opposite could cheer that news," he fumed. From there, he ridiculed what he called Labour's "three-point plan": "more spending, more borrowing more debt". 

After Miliband noted that the deficit so far this year was £7.2bn (7.3 per cent) higher than last year, Cameron replied, "if he thinks there's a problem with borrowing, why does he want to borrow more?" It is the question that Labour has struggled to answer since the election. The Tories' credit card analogy may be a hackneyed one but it is easier to explain to the electorate than Keynes's paradox of thrift. In response to Cameron, Miliband cried: "he's borrowing for failure!" The Labour leader's hope is that the public will distinguish between the coalition's 'bad' borrowing, driven by higher welfare bills, and his party's 'good' borrowing (a VAT cut, national insurance holiday, higher infrastructure spending and the like). But without explicitly declaring that Labour would borrow for growth (and explaining why), he risks reinforcing the impression that borrowing is always and everywhere a bad thing. 

Miliband, aware that polls show more voters continue to blame Labour (26 per cent) for the cuts than the coalition (21 per cent), has never conceded that his party would, at least temporarily, borrow more than the coalition. For now, with the public more worried about the disappearance of growth, he can avoid further scrutiny. But at some point before the election, Labour will need to say what its plans would mean for deficit reduction. Anything else will allow the Tories to claim they'd make "the same mistakes" all over again. 

Ed Miliband said that David Cameron was "borrowing for failure". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.