PMQs review: Cameron profits from Labour's pensions move

The PM's framing of the party as soft on welfare but tough on pensioners is dangerous for Miliband and Balls.

It was the unending struggle between David Cameron and Ed Balls that defined today's PMQs. After the shadow chancellor revealed at the weekend that pensions would be included in Labour's welfare cap, Tory MPs set the PM up to deliver attack after attack on Labour for targeting those who've "worked hard all their lives". As Balls furiously pointed out, the party has pledged to keep the "triple lock" on pensions, but Cameron seized on Douglas Alexander's statement that this was their policy "at present" (the standard formulation used by shadow ministers) to declare that Labour would "cut the pension". That Cameron is now able to claim as much, however implausibly, is dangerous for Balls and Miliband. As the PM knows well, It is the over-65s who are the most likely age group to vote (76 per cent did in 2010, compared to 65 per cent of the total population). Cameron is now framing Labour as the party that wants to "protect welfare [it has refused to support the £26,000 benefit cap in its current form], punish hardworkers and punish pensioners." 

Cameron launched another rhetorical assault on Balls later in the session when he declared that the shadow chancellor's statement that the last Labour government did not spend too much "will be hung around his neck forever", describing it as "the most important quote in the last 10 years of politics." For the Tories, Balls's and Miliband's refusal to "apologise" for overspending gives them the opening they need to claim that Labour has "learned nothing" from the crash. 

The exchanges between Cameron and Miliband - on Syria and living standards - were less memorable but highlighted the significant division that has opened up between the two parties on arming the Syrian rebels. Miliband asked the PM: "given that Russia is prepared to send more arms to the Syrian government, does the Prime Minister think it is at all realistic for that 'tipping strategy' to work?" Cameron replied by insisting that he had "not made a decision to supply the Syrian opposition with weapons" but floundered when asked by Miliband what safeguards had been put in place in the event that he did. With many on the Tory benches as sceptical of Labour of the merits of arming the rebels (81 Conservative MPs signed a motion demanding a vote on the matter), this is likely to become a growing headache for the PM. 

David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby to listen to the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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