PMQs review: Miliband's price freeze shields him from Cameron's assault

The PM raised his game but he is still struggling to change the subject.

After last week's massacre, David Cameron arrived better armed at today's PMQs (or energy questions as it will surely soon be retitled). He sought to unsettle Ed Miliband by quipping that the Labour leader had adopted "Tory policy" by switching suppliers and cleverly framed the party's decarbonisation target as a "price rise". In an acknowledgment that the PM had raised his game, the Tory benches roared him on.

But against Cameron's assault (rarely has he sounded more furious), Miliband's price freeze remains a powerful shield. Every time that Cameron attempts to change the subject, he can reply 'why don't you support our policy?' The PM's stock response that it is a "price con" still fails to convince. After Cameron's reference to him changing suppliers, an unfazed Miliband replied: "The only thing people need to hear is, if they want someone to stand up to the energy companies, they need to switch the Prime Minister."

Midway through the session, he revealed how Labour intends to put Cameron on the spot by challenging him to amend the Energy Bill to introduce a price freeze. Borrowing the trick regularly used by George Osborne on welfare, I expect Labour to introduce its own amendment and challenge the Tories and the Lib Dems to vote it down.

Confronted by Miliband's "cost of living" offensive, Cameron's instinct remains to shift the debate back to the macroecnomy. He boasted that the UK was forecast to grow "almost three times as fast as Germany" and declared that Miliband was "hiding behind this economically illiterate policy because he can’t talk about the economy". But Cameron should be wary of relying this line of attack. To most voters, after all, living standards are the economy.

In a sign of his frustration at the political success of the policy, the PM derided Miliband as a "one trick pony" (an attack line that Labour will look to prove wrong next week with a major speech from Miliband on wages), but as the Tories are learning to their cost, there is a lot of life left in this trick yet.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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