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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.