PMQs review: a surprise win for Miliband as Cameron dodges EU questions

The PM refused to say whether he would allow Conservative cabinet ministers to campaign for EU withdrawal during the referendum campaign.

Today's PMQs was a preview of the arguments over the EU that will be had repeatedly between now and the 2015 election. Ed Miliband accused David Cameron of condemning Britain to "five years of uncertainty" by promising a referendum in the next parliament and of hanging a "closed for business" over the country. In response, Cameron falsely claimed that the choice at the next election would be between a party that wants to keep Britain out of the single currency and one that wants to take us in. Ed Balls, for instance, has said that "there's no possibility anytime in my lifetime of a British government joining the euro". But Cameron was on stronger ground when he declared that Miliband "doesn't believe the people should be given a choice". It is hard to see how Labour will be able to avoid making some kind of referendum pledge before the next election.

While Cameron's promise to give the voters a say hands him a major advantage over his opponent, Miliband unsettled the Prime Minister with several well-chosen questions. Asked whether he would allow cabinet ministers to campaign for EU withdrawal during the referendum campaign (an issue I looked at earlier this week), as Harold Wilson did in 1975, Cameron simply ignored the question. But he will need to have an answer ready when he takes questions from the media after his speech on Friday.

Reminding MPs that William Hague had previously argued against an immediate in/out referendum on the grounds that it would create too much "economic uncertainty", Miliband defined Cameron's position as "an in/out referendum now would be destabilising but one in five years time is fine for the country". Challenged to say which powers (if any) Labour would seek to repatriate, Miliband was cheered by his MPs as he declared: "the biggest change we need in Europe is to move from austerity to growth and jobs".

The Tories are confident that the public are on their side, with some hopeful that the party will receive a poll bost from Cameron's speech. The PM declared that political parties could "sit back, do nothing and tell the public to go hang" or stand up for "the national interest". But Miliband was surely right when he said that while Cameron may hope his Europe problems are over they are, in fact, "just beginning". The danger for Cameron remains that the gap between what Tory MPs want from a renegotiation and what he can deliver is so great that he has set himself up for failure. The advantage he has is that this will not become a problem until after the next election. As a holding strategy, Cameron's is not a bad one.

Ed Miliband declared at Prime Minister's Questions:"it’s the same old Tories, a divided party and a weak Prime Minister". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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