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.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Commission event. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.