Show Hide image

PMQs review: Going postal over Royal Mail privatisation

Miliband's focused outrage cuts through Cameron's red mist.

Anger can be a great asset in politics if it is channelled properly. When focused, it enhances performance. As red mist, it is ruinous. In Prime Minister’s question’s today, both Ed Miliband and David Cameron got sincerely angry –  sometimes the outrage is confected – but it was the Labour leader who was made effective. Cameron just got cross. 

Miliband’s questions focused on the privatisation of Royal Mail and, specifically, the charge that a prized asset was sold too cheap, with the result that Britain has been collectively diddled out of millions. (£750m according to a National Audit Office report.) The Prime Minister’s answer was that the sale netted billions for British taxpayers, secured Royal Mail’s commercial future and put shares in the hands of many of the company’s toiling employees.

Miliband was undeterred, querying a “gentleman’s agreement” according to which City investors pledged not to cash in their Royal Mail stakes early in pursuit of a quick windfall. Half had already done just that, according to the opposition leader. At that point the Prime Minister’s nails reached the bottom of his barrel of arguments and out came the sound of scraping: “We know why he’s asking these questions – because he’s paid to by the trade unions.”

When the question was repeated, Cameron veered even further off topic, quoting from a job advertisement for an advisor in Miliband’s office and using it as a pretext to highlight recent reports of division and anxiety in Labour’s upper echelons. That the opposition is not currently singing in immaculate harmony is self-evident but raising it as a desperate non-sequitur didn’t help the Prime Minister. Nor did his efforts to denigrate Miliband’s jdugement by reference to his old proximity to Gordon Brown (another perennial barrel-scraper). The reminder that Labour had once tried and failed to privatise Royal Mail too probed the source of some opposition awkwardness on this issue. The assertion that the party’s 2010 manifesto had included such a plan earned approving jeers from Tory MPs. It was, however, untrue.

Ultimately, Miliband won the exchange because he made a consistent and coherent argument: that the Tories flogged off a prized state asset at “mates rates” for the benefit of their “friends in the City”, while Cameron responded with indiscriminate denigration, slipping at one point into abuse. “Muppet” is not the most elevated jibe to have been recorded in Hansard. (No doubt Tories will be similarly disapproving of Miliband’s reference to the PM as the “The Dunce of Downing Street” but at least that was  part of a compound insult with a flicker of rhetorical imagination – “Not so much the Wolf of Wall Street but …”) Miliband's friends have told me he knows PMQs is working well when he succeeds in provoking Cameron's temper, which can be easily measured because the Prime Minister's face flushes when he is annoyed, as he was today. "As red as a post box," jeered the Labour leader, a little gratuitously.

The privatisation of Royal Mail is an issue of limited political benefit to Labour, since the opposition is stuck with the sale as a fait accompli. Re-nationalisation isn’t on the agenda. But Miliband has judged, probably correctly, that the public doesn’t like the smell of the deal and doesn’t trust the Tories to have carried it out with the right motives or with the right people’s interests at heart. It is also something that, judging by today’s performance, provokes real moral outrage in the Labour leader and that can be a good look for him. The same cannot be said of the Prime Minister.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.