PMQs review: Harman hammers absent Cameron

With the aid of some fine lines, Labour's deputy leader ridiculed the PM's EU panic.

With David Cameron still away in the US, it was Nick Clegg who manned the dispatch box at today's PMQs, but rather than targeting Clegg, Harriet Harman (who, as is traditional when Cameron is absent, replaced Ed Miliband) chose to concentrate her fire on Cameron. "Why is it that out of the last eight Wednesdays, the Prime Minister has only answered questions in this House once?", she asked. It was a strong stat, and Harman followed it up with another fine line: "He's been busy explaining to President Obama the benefits of Britain's membership of the EU, why is he able to do it in the White House but not in this House?" She went on to ridicule Cameron's dithering over the Queen's Speech EU amendment: "if the Prime Minister was here, would he be voting for the government, against the government or showing true leadership and abstaining?" 

In response, a loyal Clegg resisted the temptation to have fun at Cameron's expense and turned his guns on the absent Miliband, declaring that it was the Labour leader "who should be relieved that there isn't Prime Minister's Questions". Referring to Miliband's recent disastrous World At One interview, he quipped: "he denied that borrowing would go up under Labour's plans 10 times, who said that there isn't enough comedy on Radio 4?" 

As I predicted earlier, Tory MPs seized the opportunity to remind Clegg of his past support for a vote on EU membership, with two brandishing the 2008 Lib Dem leaflet calling for "a real referendum". In response, Clegg insisted that his position had not changed; he supports a referendum the next time that there is a formal change in Britain's relationship with the EU (the 2010 Lib Dem manifesto stated: "The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in / out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU."). 

The Deputy PM went further by stating the coalition's EU referendum lock, which sees a public vote triggered whenever there is a transfer of powers to Brussels, meant that it was a question of "when, not if" a referendum would be held. It was the clearest signal Clegg has ever given that he believes a referendum is now inevitable at some point in the next three-four years. 

In a notable attempt to narrow the distance between himself and Cameron, Clegg said that while the coalition's position on a referendum was clear, Labour had voted against the referendum lock. It's worth noting, however, that since then Miliband has explicitly stated that he would not repeal the legislation. With the negotiations over the post-crisis shape of the EU likely to significantly change Britain's relationship a EU, a referendum looks increasingly inevitable whichever party wins in 2015. 

Harriet Harman asked why "out of the last eight Wednesdays, the Prime Minister has only answered questions in this House once?" Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.