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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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