PMQs review: Cameron tries to blame Labour for the living standards crisis

Rather than following Osborne and denying that living standards are falling, Cameron sought to hold the last Labour government responsible.

George Osborne's recent response to claims of a "cost-of-living crisis" by Labour has been to deny that there is one. In his Autumn Statement last week, the Chancellor boasted that, on his preferred measure, living standards were rising. He was duly rebuked by the IFS, which said that Osborne's metric "should certainly not be used in isolation" and confirmed that real incomes had fallen by around £1,600 since May 2010.

When Ed Miliband made this point to David Cameron at today's PMQs, Cameron's response was striking. Rather than quibbling with the figures, he conceded that "household incomes" had fallen but argued that this was not surprising after "the biggest recession in 100 years". In other words: blame Labour. He declared of Miliband: "His entire approach seems to be 'we made this almighty mess, why are they taking so long to clear it up'– well, we are clearing it up!" But while this line might have been effective in 2010, it is likely to be less so after three and a half years of the coalition (as Miliband noted). Conversely, blaming the living standards crisis on the last government, rather than denying it altogether, is undoubtedly a better approach for Cameron (whose biggest weakness is being seen as "out-of-touch" by voters) to take.

Miliband went on to press Cameron on his hint, in an interview with the Spectator, that the top rate of tax could be reduced from 45p to 40p under a Conservative majority government. The PM sharply replied that the top rate was still higher than in any year of the last Labour government but notably refused to deny that he hopes to cut it.  The possibility of Labour going into the next election proposing to reintroduce the 50p rate, while the Tories plan to reduce it to 40p, shows how much ideological ground is opening up between the two parites.

In response to Miliband's earlier questions on MPs' pay, ahead of IPSA's expected recommendation of an 11% rise tomorrow, Cameron went significantly further than before and said that unless ISPSA "thinks again", he "wouldn't rule anything out". When asked after the session whether this meant he would be prepared to scrap the body and hand control of MPs' pay back to parliament, the PM's spokesman said: "You've got his words. He's ruling nothing out." After being caught flat-footed by Miliband earlier this week (who called for cross-party talks on the issue), it now seems that Cameron will find some way to ensure the rise does not go through.

David Cameron makes his way to Downing Street from the Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.