PMQs review: Cameron manages to pin the economic blame on Miliband

The Labour leader had no convincing riposte to Cameron's claim that he was "an arsonist" who "complains that the fire brigade aren't putting the fires out fast enough".

Armed with today's impressive jobs figures, David Cameron arrived at today's PMQs confident of a win - and a win was what he got. Ed Miliband rightly pointed out that real wages are still falling (average earnings rose by just 0.9 per cent with inflation at 2 per cent) but Cameron had prepared a better response than usual. He argued that the headline figures were misleading since they did not take into account the tax cuts introduced by the coalition and that, on this basis, disposable incomes rose last year. It's worth noting, as the IFS has said, that families with children are an average of £891 worse off this year due to benefit cuts and tax rises (most notably the VAT increase) but Miliband failed to make this point in the chamber.

More problematic for Labour than this line, however, is Cameron's continuing ability to pin the blame for the crisis on the last government. In a neat put-down, he compared Miliband to an "arsonist who goes around setting fire after fire then complains that the fire brigade aren't putting the fires out fast enough" and cited the IFS's statement that it "would be astonishing" if wages hadn't fallen after "the biggest recession in 100 years". Having maintained his new restrained style up to this point, Miliband lapsed into traditional PMQs rhetoric when he accused Cameron of doing "his Bullingdon Club routine", a sign of his frustration at failing to land any blows.

When the economy was shrinking and unemployment was rising, Miliband could reliably hope for a win on this subject. But with the UK growing faster than any other European economy and joblessness falling at its fastest rate since 1997, it has become much harder for him to knock Cameron off his stride. Cameron ended with a succinct account of the improved situation: "Our plan is working, there are 1.3m more people in work, that is 1.3m more people with the security of a regular pay packet, we are securing Britain’s future and it would be put at risk by Labour."

Miliband had begun the session by challenging Cameron on the UK's refusal to accept any Syrian refugees. As usual, Cameron responded by pointing to the UK's status as the second largest international aid donor and argued that it was wrong to "pretend a small quota system can solve the problem of Syrian refugees". But after three questions, he eventually conceded that he was prepared to look again at "extreme hardship cases". While Miliband's new sober style (he praised Cameron's "reasonable tone") has not always served him well, it succeeded on this occasion. Speaking with clear but restrained passion as the son of refugees, he wrung an important concession from the PM.

Ed Miliband visits Standard Life on November, 11, 2013 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.