PMQs review: A win for Cameron as he gets high on the Co-Op's woes

A poorly-judged tweet from Tony McNulty and the misdeeds of the Reverend Flowers meant Cameron ended Miliband's winning streak.

After a succession of defeats to Ed Miliband, today's PMQs was the strongest David Cameron has enjoyed since the conference season. The email by Labour aide Torsten Bell describing Ed Balls as a "nightmare" and the woes of the Co-operative bank (a Labour backer) meant Miliband arrived at a disadvantage, but Cameron notably raised his game.

Miliband started well by questioning Cameron on the threatened closure of a Sure Start centre in Chipping Norton (which lies in Cameron's constituency), noting that the PM had even signed a petition against the move - "imagine what he could do if he were prime minister?" Cameron's failure to keep his pledge to protect Sure Start and to prevent the closure of centres (there are now 579 fewer than before the election) means he is on weak ground on this issue.

But Cameron quickly turned the session in his favour after quipping that Labour's plan to fund expanded childcare through a bank levy (which, he claimed, they had already pledged to spend on 10 other policies) was "a night out with Reverend Flowers" (a reference to the drug-using former Co-Op chief). Rather than keeping his flow, Miliband hit back with an attack on the Tories' unsavoury donors (adding, in a coded reference to Andy Coulson: "and that's just the people I can talk about in this House"), but by choosing to play on Cameron's turf, he quickly lost control of the exchange. In a neat put-down, the PM quipped that, in the form of the Co-Op scandal, he had "finally found a public inquiry he doesn't want". Miliband regained some ground by quoting Nick Boles's excoriating remarks on the failed modernisation of the Conservative Party, but it was the PM who ended in front. Miliband's unusual eagerness to resort to insult (Boles's comments showed Cameron was "a loser", he said) was evidence of his weakened position.

At that stage, the contest was still finely-balanced but two further events swung it decisively in Cameron's favour. First, owing to the impressively swift work of his team, Cameron read out the text of a tweet sent mid-session (a PMQs first) by former Labour minister Tony McNulty (who failed to make the shortlist for the Brent Central selection this week), which declared: "Public desperate for PM in waiting who speaks for them - not Leader of Opposition indulging in partisan Westminster Village knockabout." Then, after joking that Michael Meacher had been taking "mind-altering substances" with Rev. Flowers, he was forced to respond to a point of order from the Labour MP (following cries of outrage on the opposition benches), stating that he was willing to withdraw the remark if it caused offence, but adding that "it’s very important that we can have a little bit of light-hearted banter and a sense of humour".

In the circumstances, given Miliband's earlier defeat, it seemed like a rather desperate attempt by Labour to trap Cameron (it was clear that no offence was intended). Meacher's point of order handed Cameron another chance to rouse the Tory benches and to end the session on a high. Labour would be wise not to hand him such opportunities in the future.

David Cameron during his visit to the Colombo Cricket Club in on November 16, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.