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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.