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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

0800 7318496