PMQs review: Miliband goes back on the attack - and wins

The Labour leader broke with his new sober style and hammered Cameron over his refusal to rule out cutting the top tax rate again.

After three weeks, Ed Miliband's "reasonable" approach to PMQs is officially over. With the economy rising and Labour's poll lead falling, Miliband went back on the attack today - and won.

He started with a sober question on Syrian refugees, noting that he had pressed Cameron to reverse the government's stance at last week's session, but quickly shifted gears into a more offensive mode. After Labour's announcement that it would reintroduce the 50p tax rate, he dug out a Cameron quote from 2009 in which he said "showing that we’re all in this together means showing the rich will pay their share, which is why the 50p tax rate will have to stay". Cameron responded by insisting that the richest are paying more in tax and denounced Labour as "an anti-business, anti-growth, anti-jobs party" (a line you can expect to hear again). But Miliband had plenty of ammunition left. He declared that "what we have is a policy with the overwhelming support of the most important people of all – the people of Britain" (the most recent polls show more than 60 per cent support the 50p tax rate with only around 20 per cent opposed) and challenged Cameron to rule out cutting the top rate from 45p to 40p.

To this, Cameron would only reply that his "priority" was to cut tax rates for the lowest-paid before a wonderful moment of mirth when he remarked "while we’re in the business of who has said interesting things in recent days, let me ask him this...", and then failed to find the quote he was looking for. After the Speaker helpfully interjected, to roars of laughter from the Labour benches, Cameron eventually found his place but his subsequent attack - on Ed Balls's refusal to say that public spending was too high before the crash - was deprived of much of its force.

Miliband used his final two questions to again press Cameron on the top tax rate but only elicited the same response: that the government's "priority" was to help the low-paid (in other words, we might cut taxes for high earners later). By refusing to rule out reducing the 45p rate, Cameron and George Osborne (who did the same at Treasury questions yesterday) are handing Labour an election attack line on a plate.

Not only will Labour be able to remind voters that the Tories cut taxes for the highest 1 per cent of earners, it will be able to warn them that they're prepared to do the same again. Whether or not this is good economics (and there is no evidence that a 50p rate would genuinely damage growth), it is terrible politics. As a YouGov poll reminded us yesterday, the public overwhelmingly support the 50p rate, with 61 per cent in favour and just 26 per cent opposed. By 45 per cent to 19 per cent, they believe it will help the economic recovery rather than damage it, and, by 50 per cent to 29 per cent, that it will raise additional revenue.

Miliband ended:

The whole country will have heard he had three opportunities to answer and he could not give us a straight answer… After four years of this government, people are worse off and this is a PM who’s already given those at the top, millionaires, a hundred thousand pound tax cut and he wants to give them another one. He can only govern for the few, he can never govern for the many.

Today, at least, attack was the best form of defence.

Ed Miliband delivering his speech on banking reform earlier this month at the University of London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue