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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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