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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.