PMQ review: Cameron wriggles free from Miliband's intellectual attack

The Labour leader accused the Tories of an "intellectual collapse" after their U-turn on payday loans but as Cameron knows, the wise Conservative travels light.

Ed Miliband arrived at today's PMQs with the confidence of a man who believes that he is winning the argument. In Labour's view, the coalition's U-turn over a payday loan cap symptomises the Tories' complete confusion over how to respond to his interventionist agenda. Miliband began by quipping that Cameron had moved in two months from believing that intervening in broken markets is "living in a Marxist universe" to regarding it as a "solemn duty of government". Confronted by this charge, Cameron replied that the government had acted after 13 years in which Labour had done "absolutely nothing" before joking, in reference to Miliband's Desert Island Discs appearance (and his choice of Robbie Williams's "Angels"), "I think it's fair to say he's no longer a follower of Marx...he's loving Engels instead" (a line lifted from Twitter).

In a competitive field, it was the most egregious PMQs joke in recent history but it still was enough to throw Miliband off balance as he rather humorlessly replied: "You’d have thought he’d be spending his time trying to be prime minister." After that, Miliband never quite managed to pin Cameron down, despite the coalition's shameless volte-face. Rather than asking Cameron whether the payday loan U-turn was motivated by the possibility of defeat in the House of Lords (it was, so he ignored the question), it might have been better for him simply to ask why the coalition had decided to adopt a cap after repeatedly voting against it last year. His attack on the Tories' "intellectual collapse" is a line that will resonate with op-ed writers but it's likely to prove less effective with the public who, as Raf noted yesterday, rarely look to governments for ideological consistency. Like his Tory predecessors, Cameron knows that the wise Conservative travels light. When Miliband attempted to portray him as inconsistent for supporting a payday loan cap while opposing an energy price freeze, the PM replied that the two weren't comparable since "we don't have control of the international price of gas", a line that will undoubtedly resonate with some voters.

Miliband finished on a stronger note as he warned of rising deaths from cold weather (something that, combined with the A&E crisis, ministers fear could inflict significanct damage on the government) and, in revenge for Cameron's Tony McNulty quote last week, cited a tweet from Zac Goldsmith declaring that "if the PM can drop something so central to his identity, he can drop anything #greencrap" Miliband's line that "any action he takes on the cost of living crisis is because he’s been taken there kicking and screaming" was his strongest of the session. Cameron ended, as so often, by accusing Miliband of not wanting to talk about the economy. But as Labour's strategists will tell you, for most voters, living standards are the economy. Unless, and until, real wages begin to rise significantly for most earners (and perhaps not even then), Cameron will remain vulnerable on this territory. 

David Cameron attends the British curry awards at Battersea Evolution on November 25, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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