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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide