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

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496