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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.