PMQs review: Cameron wrongfoots Miliband on the banks

After being surprised by Cameron's commitment to banking reform, the Labour leader struggled to regain his poise.

Even before Ed Miliband got to his feet at today's PMQs, David Cameron had seized the advantage. Noting that Tristram Hunt and David Miliband were among those who would fall foul of Labour's new policy of banning unqualified teachers, he quipped: "another example of brotherly love". 

Things didn't improve much for Miliband after that. He challenged Cameron to say whether the government would use the banking bill to introduce new criminal penalties for bankers (anticipating an equivocal response) but was wrongfooted when Cameron simply replied: "we will be using that bill to take these important steps". After that, the Labour leader's subsequent (and pre-scripted) declaration that "if the government doesn't put down the amendments, we will" fell entirely flat. 

Miliband did have a smart statistic to hand, noting that bonuses had risen by 64 per cent in the last year, principally due to bankers deferring them in order to benefit from the 50p tax cut, but this only offered Cameron an opportunity to launch attack after attack on Labour for being at the wheel when Northern Rock issued 125% mortgages, when Fred Goodwin received his knighthood and when the boom turned to bust.

Bonuses, he pointed out, were 85 per cent lower now than in 2007-08, demanding that Labour finally apologise for its mismanagement. Miliband and Ed Balls have, of course, repeatedly admitted that Labour was wrong to regulate the banks so laxly but one can hardly blame Cameron for seeking to make them do so again.

Miliband declared at one point that he wasn't going to "take lectures from the guy who was the adviser on Black Wednesday" but his history lesson will resonate less with the public than Cameron's. That the Tories were calling for less, not more regulation at the time is, politically speaking, irrelevant. It is governments, not oppositions, that get the blame. 

Today's session was also notable for Cameron's refusal to deny that the government is considering increasing interest rates on student loans taken out in the last 15 years. After Vince Cable and Danny Alexander rejected the story as "false", this offers Labour a chance to go back on the attack.

Asked whether he had ever had any discussions with Lynton Crosby "about plain packaging of cigarettes or the minimum pricing of alcohol", Cameron replied: "I can tell you that Lynton Crosby has never lobbied me on anything", an answer likely to come under considerable scrutiny. But his pay-off was sharp; the only thing the pair discussed, he said, was "how we destroy the credibility of the Labour Party" but Crosby was not doing "as good a job as the party opposite". 

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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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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