PMQs review: Miliband puts Cameron on the back foot

Cameron looked evasive as he responded to Miliband's call for a limit on MPs' outside earnings with a reheated attack on the unions.

After last week's mauling, Ed Miliband arrived well-armed at today's PMQs. He swiftly challenged David Cameron to say whether he would accept his proposal of a £5,000 cap on all party donations (as revealed on The Staggers this morning) and of new limits on MPs' outside earnings. Cameron responded by rejecting a £5,000 cap on the grounds that it would imply "a massive amount of taxpayer support", a challenge Miliband will have to confront (some will argue that parties should simply cut their costs), but his answer on second jobs was far weaker.

In a proposal not included in his speech yesterday (he wisely held some ammunition back), Miliband asked the PM whether he agreed that "MPs should not be able to take on new paid directorships and consultancies". Cameron responded with a tokenistic attack on the unions that looked like a fairly obvious attempt to change the subject. Miliband had the confidence of a man certain that, on this issue, the public are on his side. It was only later in the session, in response to a question from Labour MP Phil Wilson, that Cameron offered a principled defence on second jobs, arguing that parliament benefits from figures such as Jack Straw and David Blunkett who have such interests.

After Miliband's speech yesterday, his claim that the Labour leader "doesn't want to talk about the trade unions stitching up Parliamentary selections" no longer rings true. Miliband also made it clear that he will use the Tories' opposition to a cap on donatiosn to frame them as the party of "big money", pointing out that the Conservatives had received £25m in funding from hedge funds who in turn received a tax cut of £145m in the Budget. 

As an aside, it is worth noting a furore at the start of the session when Cameron wrongly described Andy Murray as the "first British player" to win Wimbledon for 77 years (forgetting Virginia Wade). With Labour MPs crying Wade's name, Miliband smartly took the opportunity to correct his error as soon as he stood up. 

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.