PMQs review: Miliband's New Statesman jibe backfires

After claiming that Cameron was "scraping the barrel" by quoting the NS, the Labour leader was promptly reminded that it endorsed his leadership.

Without wishing to appear unduly solipsistic, it was the New Statesman that was the subject of the most memorable exchange at today's PMQs. After Ed Miliband assailed David Cameron over the loss of Britain's AAA credit rating, the PM retorted that the NS ("the in-house magazine of the Labour Party") had written of the Labour leader's approach: 

His critique of the government strategy will never win back public trust, his proposals for the economy will never convince, his credibility problem will only become magnified as the general election approaches.

The quote in question was adapted from Anthony Seldon's open letter to Ed Balls in last week's issue (not an NS editorial as Cameron implied) calling for the shadow chancellor to "fall on his sword" and it prompted this ungenerous response from the Labour leader: "I think he's scraping the barrel by quoting the New Statesman."
 
Thanks, Ed. (P.S. We hope you like our new logo). After a swift prompt from George Osborne, Cameron went on to remind Miliband that the NS was "the only newspaper that endorsed his leadership bid" (the People excepted), leaving the Labour leader looking rather foolish. By dismissing Cameron's NS quote out of hand, Miliband fell into a Tory trap.
 
Up to this point, the session had been dominated by last week's credit downgrade, with Miliband noting just how much store Cameron and Osborne once set by the retention of AAA. But to the inevitable riposte from the PM - "it's his policy to address excessive borrowing by borrowing more!" - Miliband could only fall back on the stock reply that 'I ask the questions". "Anytime he wants to swap places, I'll answer him," said Miliband. 
 
What should worry Labour is that Miliband has yet to settle on a convincing response to the politically potent charge that his party would simply "borrow more". The difference, of course, is that while Labour would borrow for growth (in the form of tax cuts and higher infrastructure spending), the coalition is borrowing to meet the costs of failure (in the form of lower growth and higher long-term unemployment). 
 
The problem for Labour, however, is that Balls and Miliband, aware that voters may not easily accept their distinction between "good" borrowing and "bad" borrowing, are unwilling to make the explicit case for deficit-financed stimulus. Earlier this week, George Osborne, not entirely unconvincingly, ridiculed it as "an economic policy that dares not speak its name".
 
Miliband may quip that he doesn't need to give answers until he's in Cameron place, but if he wants to continue to attack the coalition on this territory, let alone become Prime Minister, he will need to do rather better than that. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.