PMQs review: Cameron lets his Unite obsession get the better of him

The Tories should not make the mistake of assuming that the public shares their instinctive loathing of the trade unions.

However much Ed Miliband wanted to ask him about Egypt and primary school places, there was only one subject David Cameron wanted to talk about at today's PMQs: Labour's relationship with Unite and the Falkirk selection row. "His questions are written by Len McCluskey," he declared, apropos of nothing, after Miliband asked him why a third of new schools were being built in areas with surplus places. At least 13 references to Unite and McCluskey followed as Cameron branded Miliband "too weak to run Labour and certainly too weak to run the country". 

It earned him the best reception he's had all year from Tory backbenchers, although Miliband returned fire with as much passion as we've seen from him. This was a PM, he declared, "who had dinners for donors in Downing Street, gave tax cuts to his Christmas card list and brought Andy Coulson into Downing Street. Lecturing us about ethics takes double standards to a whole new level." But since the Labour leader's only response was to change the subject, the spoils went to Cameron. 

At that point, his pre-planned attack lines delivered, the PM would have been wise to move on. But Cameron couldn't help himself. In reponse to a question from the well-regarded Labour MP Stephen Timms on how demand for foodbanks had risen from 30,00 households before the election to 350,000, Cameron blustered: "I'm sure as a member of Unite, the Honourable Member will want to look very carefully at his own constituency party - who knows how many people they've bought and put on the register". It was a frivolous response to a sincere question. 

One can hardly blame the Tories for seeking to take advantage of the Falkirk debacle but they shouldn't make the error of assuming that voters share their instinctive loathing of the trade unions. A recent Populus poll found that 69 per cent of the public agree that "it is important that Labour retains its strong links with the Trade Unions because they represent many hard working people in Britain", including 53 per cent of Tory voters, with just 28 per cent disagreeing. The response of most people to the allegation that Unite manipulated the Falkirk selection process by signing up trade unionists as Labour members without their permission is likely to be one of indifference.

The days when Ted Heath was forced to call an election to find out whether it was he or the unions "who ran Britain" (answer: the unions) are long gone. Today, the unions present a far less threatening face. If he wants to win converts, rather than merely rouse supporters, Cameron would be wise to avoid a repeat of today's monomania.

David Cameron declared at PMQs that Miliband was "too weak to run Labour and certainly too weak to run the country". 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.