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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How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.