PMQs review: Cameron's "spare room subsidy" won't beat the "bedroom tax"

The PM has left it too late to reframe the debate over the welfare cut, not least with a phrase as clunky as his.

Bankers' bonuses may be even less popular with the public than the EU, so the Tories' decision to oppose Brussels's cap on bonuses was a political gift that Ed Miliband readily seized on at today's PMQs. The Labour leader began amusingly by asking David Cameron how he would help "John in East London", who earns £1m and is worried that his bonus may be capped at £2m. Cameron replied that bonuses were now a quarter of what they were under Labour and that he wouldn't listen to "the croupier in the casino when it all went bust". It was a strong reply - voters still blame the last Labour government for the cuts, rather than the coalition - but, politically speaking, it is hard for Cameron to reconcile this with his opposition to further curbs on bonuses. 

Miliband went on to contrast the PM's stance on bonuses, with his introduction of the "bedroom tax". At this point, Cameron declared that before moving on to the "spare room subsidy" (the PM's preferred term), he wanted Miliband to apologise for the "mess he left the country in". When Cameron deploys this tactic, Miliband usually replies that "it's called Prime Minister's Questions, I ask the questions, he answers them". But this week the Labour leader had prepared a wittier than ususal riposte. "It's good to see him preparing for opposition," he joked, adding that he was "looking forward" to facing Theresa May, whose leadership ambitions are the subject of growing speculation. At this quip, the Home Secretary shot Milband a look of thunder. 

Much of the rest of the session was taken up by the "bedroom tax", with Cameron accusing Labour of scaremongering over the policy. Referring all the time to the "spare room subsidy", the PM said that pensioners and those with severely disabled children were "exempt" from the subsidy. Except they're not; they will receive the subsidy. In his determination not to use "bedroom tax", the PM ended up misdescribing his own policy. Cameron isn't wrong to recognise the importance of "framing" the debate but after weeks in which the "bedroom tax" has become the media's phrase of choice, he has left it too late to do so. Just as the "poll tax" triumphed over the "community charge", so the "bedroom tax" will triumph over the (clunky) "spare room subsidy". 

But the PM was on stronger ground when he revealed that Labour had opposed £83bn of welfare cuts. The perception that the party is incapable of taking tough decisions and would simply "borrow more" is one that Cameron is rightly keen to encourage. And with Ed Balls and Ed Miliband unwilling to argue explicitly for deficit-financed stimulus, the charge that they are concealing their true intentions could gain ground. 

David Cameron outside 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump