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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.