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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

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

0800 7318496