PMQs review: Miliband casts himself as the man who prevented a "rush to war"

The Labour leader sought to spin last week's vote in his favour but a contemptuous Cameron accused him of pursuing division.

It was at the end of David Cameron and Ed Miliband's exchanges at today's PMQs that the key moment came as both sought to spin last week's Syria vote in their favour. Miliband declared that the vote "was not about Britain shirking its global responsibilities, it was about preventing a rush to war", casting himself as a responsible figure who, while refusing to rule out military action, acted as a brake on a reckless Prime Minister (he tweeted the line immediately afterwards). But Cameron, who struggled to bring himself to even look at Miliband, replied: "I don't think it was necessary to divide the House on a vote that could have led to a vote but he took the decision that it was", framing Miliband as an irresponsible figure who put party interests before the national interest. 

Until that point, in view of the grave nature of the subject, both leaders sought to strike a respecful and consensual tone, but the role of Iran emerged as the major dividing line. Miliband suggested that the government should seek Iranian participation in the Syrian contact group or as part of the Geneva peace process but an obviously sceptical Cameron replied: "let's not forget what Iran has done to our embassy and our country". A similar question was subsequently asked by Jack Straw (and several other Labour backbenchers), suggesting that the party views this as an important diplomatic proposal. But Miliband and Douglas Alexander should remember that while President Rouhani is a far more moderate and flexible figure than Ahmadinejad, ultimate power continues to lie with the Ayatollahs. 

Compared to the pre-recess PMQs, the session was largely free of fireworks, but Cameron unwisely responded to a reasonable question from Margaret Beckett on why so many organisations (including, she noted, ConservativeHome) oppose the government's lobbying bill with another crude attack on the trade unions.  

Another notable moment came when Labour MP Jim Hood smartly asked Cameron how he could oppose a mansion tax on the grounds that many who would be hit are "capital rich and cash poor", while supporting the bedroom tax, which hurts many for the same reason. Fixing his glare at the Labour frontbench, Cameron replied: "You've ranted and raved about the spare room subsidy - are you going to reverse it? No? Absolutely nothing to say." The hope among Labour MPs is that Miliband will use his conference speech to confirm that Labour would repeal the policy, a pledge that, as I recently reported, the party will make at some point before 2015.  

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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.