Miliband delivers the performance he needed in Queen's Speech debate

The Labour leader brilliantly ridiculed calls for a Tory-UKIP pact, but his borrowing problem remains.

After one of his most difficult months since becoming Labour leader, Ed Miliband needed a strong performance in today's Queen's Speech - and he delivered. His best moment came when he referenced the calls from Tory MPs for a pact or even a coalition with UKIP. "They used to call them clowns. Now they want to join the circus," he quipped, a line that improves with each reading. 

He went on to remind the House how Cameron's promise of an in/out EU referendum (which many predicted would prove disastrous for Labour) had failed to counter UKIP or sate his recalictrant backbenchers. In a well-crafted passage, he declared: "The lesson for the Prime Minister is you can’t out-Farage Farage. Banging on about Europe won’t convince the public. And the people behind him will just keep coming back for more. A Europe referendum tomorrow. Drop same sex marriage. The demands go on and on. They will never be satisfied. And every day he spends dealing with the problem behind him he’s not dealing with the problems facing the country."

Earlier in the speech, referring to Iain Duncan Smith's suggestion that wealthy pensioners hand back their Winter Fuel Payments, he asked Cameron: "why doesn’t he set an example and hand back the tax cut he’s given himself?" Seizing on David Davis's plea for "no more old Etonian advisers", he quipped that it was "time for some diversity" - "let's have someone from Harrow". After the abandonment of minimum alcohol pricing and plain cigarette packaging, Miliband also brought up Lynton Crosby's links to the alcohol and tobacco industries, declaring, once again, that Cameron stands up for "the wrong people".

This is what they used to say about cigarette packaging: 'It's wrong that children are being attracted to smoke by glitzy designs on packets … children should be protected from the start.'

That was the previous Health Secretary. Before they hired their new strategist. The one whose company worked for big tobacco. And now what’s happened? They’ve dropped the bill.

After his now-infamous World At One interview, in which he was unable to say whether Labour would borrow more to fund a temporary VAT cut, three Conservative MPs intervened to challenge Miliband over his plans. In response to the first, Jacob Rees-Mogg, he replied that "of course" a VAT cut would "have a cost" and "lead to a temporary increase in borrowing" (perhaps the first time Miliband has admitted in the Commons that Labour would borrow more), but that the increase would be justified since it would help to stimulate growth. But he was unable to answer Penny Mordaunt's claim that the measures included in Labour's alternative Queen's Speech would cost an extra £28bn, insisting that he had "already addressed this" (he hadn't). After he was challenged again, he fell back on the line that it was the government that was "borrowing more". This is true (£245bn, in fact) but it invites the Tory rejoinder, "you would borrow even more", leaving the Labour leader back where he began. The danger for Miliband is that Tory MPs will continue to challenge him over the total cost of Labour's plans until, as with the VAT cut, he finally gives way.  

But while Miliband still gives the impression of running scared of his own economic policy, today he did enough to remind his party why he could emerge as the victor in 2015. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on November 19, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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.

0800 7318496