PMQs review: the problem for Miliband is that the numbers are moving in Cameron's favour

In politics, trajectory is everything. The return of growth and falling unemployment means that Miliband now struggles to discomfort the PM.

So long as growth was falling and unemployment was rising, Ed Miliband could comfortably secure victory at PMQs by declaring that David Cameron had failed on the economy. The problem for Miliband and Labour is that the numbers are now moving in the right direction. Economically speaking, there may be little difference between a growing economy and a stagnant one, but politically speaking, there is all the difference in the world.

As a result, it has become much harder for Miliband to discomfort Cameron. Today's session was a wounding one for the Labour leader, with the PM landing blow after blow and Miliband falling back on the old charge of "complacency". Cameron replied, rather effectively, that "real complacency is promising to end boom and bust". Later, Miliband declared that it was George Osborne who "choked off the recovery" in 2010 but if a week is a long time in politics, that is now ancient history. 

Miliband went on to point out that wages had fallen in real terms for 38 of the 39 months that Cameron had been Prime Minister (the one exception being April 2013 when deferred bonuses were paid out to benefit from the cut in the top rate of tax). But the problem for him is that he has yet to clearly explain how Labour would improve living standards. Cameron was able to quote Alistair Darling's remark that he was "waiting to hear" what the party had to say on the economy. The other danger for Labour is that is now not inconceivable that wages could move decisively ahead of prices before the election. 

While at times veering into Flashman mode, Cameron's one-liners meant he had the Tory backbenches behind him today. He declared that Miliband's speeches were "so poor" that "it's hard to know when he's finished" and concluded (in reference to the TUC): "he promised us Raging Bull, he gave us Chicken Run" (a prize to whichever Tory scripted that). 

Miliband's strongest moment came when he referenced Michael Gove's comments on foodbanks ("It's often as a result of some decisions that have been taken by those families which mean that they are not best able to manage their finances.") and asked the coalition frontbench: "have you ever tried living on £150 a week?" But it says much about Cameron's increased confidence, that he didn't even break a sweat. 

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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The Tories have missed a chance to show that they care about student debt

After condemning Jeremy Corbyn for his "betrayal", the government has still raised the top student interest rate to 6.1 per cent. 

For weeks, the Conservatives have assailed Jeremy Corbyn for his alleged betrayal over student debt. The Labour leader told NME during the campaign that he would "deal with" the issue. But he later clarified that this did not amount to a "commitment" to wipe out student debt (which would cost around £100bn) and that he had been "unaware of the size of it at the time". For this, the Tories have accused him of Clegg-style hypocrisy. 

There is little sign, however, that the attack has proved effective. Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of student debt and Corbyn's language in the NME interview was ambiguous. "I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [student debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off," he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 as part of the coalition. Young voters still credit Corbyn for his vow to abolish tuition fees (were he to break this promise in power, it would be a different matter). 

A further problem for the Tories is that they have spotlighted a problem - student debt - without offering any solution. At present, graduates pay a marginal tax rate of 41 per cent on earnings over £21,000 (20 per cent income tax, 12 per cent national insurance and 9 per cent student loan repayment). This, combined with the average debt (£50,800), leaves them struggling to save for a home deposit, or even to pay the rent. The Conservatives, unsurprisingly, are unable to sell capitalism to voters with no capital. 

Yet rather than remedying this problem, the government has compounded it. The Department of Education has ruled out reducing the top interest rate on student loans from 6.1 per cent, meaning the average student will accrue £5,800 in interest charges even before they graduate.

By maintaining the status quo, the Tories have missed a chance to demonstrate that they have learned from their electoral humbling. Had they reduced student debt, or cut tuition fees, they could have declared that while Corbyn talks, they act. Instead, they have merely confirmed that for graduates who want change, Corbyn remains their best hope. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.