PMQs review: Cameron sends the Tories away happy as he triumphs over Miliband

Labour MPs were left glum-faced as Cameron delivered his strongest performance for months.

Ahead of the summer recess, both David Cameron and Ed Miliband needed a win at today's PMQs to send their troops away happy and it was Cameron who rose to the occasion, delivering his strongest performance for months. The longer the session went on, the more confident he seemed to grow, quipping that he longer needed Lynton Crosby's advice to "defeat a divided and useless Labour Party" and advising Miliband to "move the two people next to you [Ed Balls and Andy Burnham] and...do it fast." 

Miliband had begun by challenging Cameron on NHS staffing levels in response to yesterday's Keogh report but a well-briefed Cameron pointed out that eight of the 11 hospitals placed in special measures now had more nurses than in 2010 and that 10 had more clinical staff. A somewhat deflated Miliband then questioned Cameron over Lynton Crosby and plan cigarette packaging but, once again, the PM had come well-armed. Declaring that the decision was made by him and Jeremy Hunt alone, he noted that the last Labour government had taken the same view and produced a letter from Andy Burnham to Tessa Jowell noting that "no studies have shown that introducing plain packaging would cut the number of young people smoking". 

He again dodged Miliband's question on whether he had ever had a conversation with Crosby on cigarette packaging, merely stating that he had never been "lobbied" by him, but swiftly returned fire by pointing out that Miliband had predicted that unemployment "would get worse, not better" this year. "Isn't it time he withdraws that and admits he was wrong!", he cried. 

Miliband squeezed in a neat dig about Cameron being "the PM for Benson and hedge funds" but Cameron, brimming with confidence, ended with a flourish of rare force: 

We are getting to an end of a political session where the deficit is down, unemployment is down, crime is falling, welfare is capped, Abu Qatada is back in Jordan ... every day this country is getting stronger and every day he is getting weaker.

As the Tory benches cried "more! more!, Labour MPs looked on glum-faced.

Cameron's rollcall of achievements was an apt summary of why the Tories believe the political tide has turned in their favour. An economic recovery finally appears to be underway and the public has tolerated, rather than revolted against austerity. As Cameron noted, it is now February since Miliband asked a full set of questions about the economy. The fear among Labour MPs was always that their party's poll lead owed more to distaste for the coalition than it did to enthusiasm for them. Now, as growth returns, the danger is that it will crumble. 

David Cameron attends a press conference after the European Union leaders summit on June 28, 2013 at the EU headquarters in Brussels. 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