PMQs review: Cameron falls into Labour's "bedroom tax" trap

By repeatedly insisting that the "bedroom tax" was not a tax, the Prime Minister gave the phrase new life.

One of Ed Miliband's boldest decisions since becoming Labour leader has been to target the coalition's welfare cuts and today's PMQs saw an all-out assault on the "bedroom tax". For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the government's plan to cut housing benefit for those deemed to have more living space than they need, such as a spare bedroom. Social housing tenants with one extra room will lose 14 per cent of their benefit, while those with two or more will lose 25 per cent.  

The government argues that this is another necessary measure to reduce the ballooning housing benefit bill (which is largely due to extortionate rents and substandard wages) but Miliband highlighted the case of a mother with two sons in the army who would lose out while they were away "serving their country". He went on to warn that two-thirds of those affected are disabled (many of whom require an extra room due to their disability) and that it would encourage social housing tenants, "the most vulnerable", to move to the more expensive private sector, wiping out any savings from the policy as the housing benefit bill rises. Miliband also smartly contrasted the Tories' "bedroom tax" with their opposition to a "mansion tax", brandishing a letter from the party to Conservative donors asking them to contribute to a fighting fund against a "homes tax". 

Cameron gave little ground in response, pointing out that there was a £50m fund to deal with "difficullt cases" and bluntly asking why it was fair for social housing tenants to receive money for an extra room when private tenants did not. For a self-described "compassionate Conservative", it was a rather compassionless reply. As Cameron's answers became increasingly ill-tempered, Miliband deftly weaved in a reference to last night's vote on equal marriage: "He shouldn't get so het up. After all, he's got almost half his parliamentary party behind him." Unsurprisingly, the line went down well with both sides of the House. 

The PM's best moment came when he remarked of Miliband: "we know all the things he's against, we are beginning to wonder what on earth he's for?" If Labour is opposed to the "bedroom tax", the "strivers' tax", the "granny tax", the "toddler tax", how would it reduce public spending? Would it introduce a "mansion tax"? Miliband gave the stock reply that "the clue's in the title - Prime Minister's Questions - he's supposed to try and answer them". But this riposte, while acceptable in 2010, is less impressive halfway through the parliament, with Labour MPs increasingly troubled by the perceived lack of policy detail from their leader.

After Miliband had used up his six questions, Labour MPs continued to challenge Cameron over the "bedroom tax" in a well coordinated assault. An increasingly exasperated Cameron repeated that the "bedroom tax" was not a tax but, in doing so, he unwittingly repeated Labour's attack line. Whether the PM likes it or not, when voters hear him refer to the "bedroom tax" that is what they will call it. Across the floor, Miliband and Ed Balls smiled contentedly in response. Their work for the day was done. 

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in London, on February 06, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.