Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference in Perth last week. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband's price freeze saves him - but he needs a new hit

To settle his party's nerves, the Labour leader needs another trump card.

After his worst week as Labour leader since last summer, Ed Miliband returned to a scene of past glories at today's PMQs: his energy price freeze. SSE's announcement this morning that bills will be frozen until 2016 give him the peg he needed. "Would we be right to assume that the PM believes that this price freeze is unworkable, impossible to implement and probably a communist plot?" was his pitch-perfect opener. Cameron replied that it was only because of the government's reduction in green levies that the company had been able to act (as SSE said in its statement). Labour can reasonably argue that the coalition would never have taken this action had it not been for Miliband's campaign, but unlike when the policy was first announced, he can at least point to government support for billpayers.

Yet despite the best week for the Tories for months, Cameron appeared oddly rattled by Miliband's line of attack. As he knows, while the government's cuts to green levies have reduced most bills by around £50, they are still rising. So long as this remains the case, Labour's price freeze will retain its potency. His attempt, midway through the session, to change the subject to the Budget and the economy showed that he is still much happier fighting on this territory than on living standards (with Miliband, in Reagan mode, warning that people will be worse off in 2015 than they were in 2010).

"I'll tell him what's weak: weak is not having an economic policy, weak is not responding to the Budget," he raged. In response, Miliband quipped, "Not for the first time, calm down, dear, calm down", before seguing into a terrible bingo joke: "Or should I say for the benefit of the Chancellor, eyes down, dear?" It was a line that Cameron trumped with a genuine zinger later when he declared that bingo was "the only time he gets near Number 10".

But while Miliband's energy price freeze shielded him today, it served as a reminder that he hasn't enjoyed a similar hit since. If he is to settle Labour nerves, he'll soon need to unveil his "radical offer" on tuition fees and much else.

The other notable moment in the session came when Cameron confirmed that the government had been unable to reach agreement on amending the Hunting Act to allow more than two dogs to be used to flush out a fox (owing to Lib Dem opposition). But while Tory backbenchers will be dismayed, an interminable row over foxhunting is one "barnacle" (to borrow Lynton Crosby's phrase) that the PM can do without. Far better to keep banging on about the Budget.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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