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
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.