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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.