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
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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