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.

Show Hide image

Will the collapse of the EU/Canada trade deal speed the demise of Jean-Claude Juncker?

The embattled European Comission President has already survived the migrant crisis and Brexit.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the embattled President of the European Commission, is likely to come under renewed pressure to resign later this week now that the Belgian region of Wallonia has likely scuppered the EU’s flagship trade deal with Canada.

The rebellious Walloons on Friday blocked the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). The deal for 500 million Europeans was at the final hurdle when it fell, struck down by an administration representing 3.2 million people.

As Canada’s trade minister, Chrystia Freeland, walked out of talks in tears and declared the deal dead, fingers were pointed at Juncker. Under pressure from EU governments, he had agreed that CETA would be a “mixed agreement”. He overruled the executive’s legal advice that finalising the deal was in the Commission’s power.

CETA now had to be ratified by each member state. In the case of Belgium, it means it had to be approved by each of its seven parliaments, giving the Walloons an effective veto.

Wallonia’s charismatic socialist Minister-President Paul Magnette needed a cause celebre to head off gains made by the rival Marxist PTB party. He found it in opposition to an investor protection clause that will allow multinationals to sue governments, just a month after the news that plant closures by the world’s leading heavy machinery maker Caterpillar would cost Wallonia 2,200 jobs.

Juncker was furious. Nobody spoke up when the EU signed a deal with Vietnam, “known the world over for applying all democratic principles”, he sarcastically told reporters.

“But when it comes to signing an agreement with Canada, an accomplished dictatorship as we all know, the whole world wants to say we don’t respect human right or social and economic rights,” he added.  

The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was due to arrive in Brussels on Thursday to sign CETA, which is backed by all EU leaders.

European Council President, Donald Tusk, has today spoken to Trudeau and his visit is currently scheduled to go ahead. This morning, the Walloons said they would not be held to ransom by the “EU ultimatum”.

If signed, CETA will remove customs duties, open up markets, and encourage investment, the Commission has said. Losing it will cost jobs and billions in lost trade to Europe’s stagnant economy.

“The credibility of Europe is at stake”, Tusk has warned.

Failure to deliver CETA will be a serious blow to the European Union and call into question the European Commission’s exclusive mandate to strike trade deals on behalf of EU nations.

It will jeopardise a similar trade agreement with the USA, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The Commission claims that an “ambitious” TTIP could increase the size of the EU economy by €120 billion (or 0.5% of GDP).

The Commission has already missed its end of year deadline to conclude trade talks with the US. It will now have to continue negotiations with whoever succeeds Obama as US President.

And if the EU cannot, after seven years of painstaking negotiations, get a deal with Canada done, how will it manage if the time comes to strike a similar pact with a "hard Brexit" Britain?

Juncker has faced criticism before.  After the Brexit referendum, the Czechs and the Poles wanted him gone. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban muttered darkly about “personnel issues” at the Commission.

In July, it was reported that Angela Merkel, the most powerful politician in Europe, was plotting to oust Juncker. Merkel stayed her hand, and with German elections looming next year is unlikely to pull the trigger now.

When he took office in November 2014, Juncker promised that his administration would be a “political Commission”. But there has never been any sign he would be willing to bear the political consequences of his failures.

Asked if Juncker would quit after Brexit, the Commission’s chief spokesman said, “the answer has two letters and the first one is ‘N’”.

Just days into his administration, Juncker was embroiled in the LuxLeaks scandal. When he was Luxembourg’s prime minister and finance minister, the country had struck sweetheart tax deals with multinational companies.  

Despite official denials, rumours about his drinking and health continue to swirl around Brussels. They are exacerbated by bizarre behaviour such as kissing Belgium’s Charles Michel on his bald head and greeting Orban with a cheery “Hello dictator”!

On Juncker’s watch, border controls have been reintroduced in the once-sacrosanct Schengen passport-free zone, as the EU struggles to handle the migration crisis.

Member states promised to relocate 160,000 refugees in Italy and Greece across the bloc by September 2017. One year on, just 6,651 asylum seekers have been re-homed.

All this would be enough to claim the scalp of a normal politician but Juncker remains bulletproof.

The European Commission President can, in theory, only be forced out by the European Parliament, as happened to Jacques Santer in 1999.

The European Parliament President is Martin Schulz, a German socialist. His term is up for renewal next year and Juncker, a centre-right politician, has already endorsed its renewal in a joint interview.

There is little chance that Juncker will be replaced with a leader more sympathetic to the British before the Brexit negotiations begin next year.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.