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
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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