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.

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.

0800 7318496