PMQs review: Miliband traps Cameron over "money is no object"

The PM's loose rhetoric handed Miliband a win as he challenged plans to make 550 Environment Agency Staff redundant.

As I predicted he would, Ed Miliband used PMQs to zero in on the contradiction between David Cameron's declaration yesterday that "money is no object" in providing flood relief and Patrick McLoughlin's warning earlier today that there is no "blank cheque". If money is no object, he asked Cameron, will he reconsider the government's plan to make 550 Environment Agency flood staff redundant?

After his loose rhetoric yesterday, the PM was left desperately trying to wriggle out of his commitment. He repeated his pledge to introduce a grant for all affected homeowners and businesses, a £10m fund to help farmers, and to defer tax payments for businesses, with 100 per cent business rate relief. But on the fate of the Environment Agency staff he remained mute. As Miliband reminded him of "what sounded like a grand promise", Cameron was forced to try and change the subject to Labour's spending plans and to the governent's success in reducing the benefit. Since it had managed the budget well, he said, there was no need for "people to worry about penny pinching". But penny pinching is exactly the impression given by his decision to proceed with staff redundancies.

Cameron eventually resorted to the age-old cry of a PM in trouble: the opposition leader was seeking to "divide the House when we should be coming together for the nation". But Miliband's calm and reasoned tone means this charge is unlikely to stick. In what is always difficult territory for an opposition leader, he came out on top. After the session had ended, No. 10 briefed that there would be no new money made available and that any extra funding would come from contigency budgets, a clear reversal of Cameron's pledge yesterday.

The other significant moment came when Cameron was pressed by Labour's Cathy Jamieson on whether he could help Danny Alexander, who has said that the 45p tax rate will be scrapped over his "dead body", by ruling out any further tax cuts for top earners ("or should the Chief Secretary up his life insurance?" she added). Cameron, sounding more sceptical than before, emphasised that his overriding "priority" was to cut taxes for low and middle earners, but still refused to rule out cutting the top rate again. For Labour, such answers are a political gift. For the Tories, however, the significance of Cameron's answer was his reference to "middle" earners, which they view (perhaps wrongly) as a hint that relief could be offered to those who have been sucked into the 40p tax band by fiscal drag.

Finally, after disastrously fielding an all-male frontbench last week and handing Miliband his strongest PMQs victory for months, the Tories went to predictably great lengths to avoid repeating this error, with seven women on the frontbench and a total of 14 in view of the cameras. If the Tories continue to ensure greater gender parity in future weeks, Miliband may well have done them a favour.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.