PMQs review: on-form Miliband leaves Cameron rattled

After a perfectly-scripted joke from the Labour leader on alcohol pricing, the PM never recovered.

Rarely has Ed Miliband enjoyed PMQs as much as he did today. He began with what sounded like a deathly dull question on minimum alcohol pricing before producing his best opening line to date: "is there anything he could organise in a brewery?" 

After Vince Cable's intervention on the economy, the OBR's rebuke of Cameron, Theresa May's barely concealed leadership pitch and new forecasts of a triple-dip recession, the Labour leader was not short of material for the rest of the session. "When the Business Secretary calls for him to change course," he asked the PM, "is he speaking for the government?" After Cameron noted in his response that car manufacturing, at least, was up, Miliband ad-libbed: "never mind more car production, it's taxi for Cameron after that answer". Things had got so bad, he noted, that No. 10 had sent Baroness Warsi (the woman he sacked as Conservative chairman and no friend of Cameron) out to say that she had "full confidence" in the PM.  

An off-form Cameron resorted to his stock lines: Miliband had nothing to say about the deficit, Labour would borrow more, Ed Balls was still shadow chancellor, the party was in hock to union "dinosaurs". All of these fell flat, with Tory MPs entirely unmoved. 

The well-marshalled Labour benches again targeted Cameron with questions over the "bedroom tax" and whether he will gain from the abolition of the 50p rate. To the former, he replied by again declaring that only Labour could call "a welfare reform a tax". But with the phrase ("bedroom tax") firmly lodged in the public consciousness, Cameron needs to spend more time defending the measure itself, rather than arguing over the name. On the 50p rate, for the third week running, Cameron again refused to say whether he would benefit from the move, merely stating that he would "pay everything has to". But Labour, encouraged by how Barack Obama forced Mitt Romney onto the defensive over his tax bill, intends to keep pressing the PM on this subject. 

The session ended surreally with Cameron reading out an imaginary letter from "Ed who lives in camden" asking what he should do about the government's seven per cent stamp duty charge on £2m houses. The gag finally roused the Tory benches as the PM mocked Labour's "champagne socialist" (although Cameron, for reasons that do not need stating, is ill-suited to class politics) but their earlier silence means it was Miliband who left smiling. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.