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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder