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 Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR