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 Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.