Ed Miliband speaks at the Science Museum on July 3, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband exploits the coalition divide on anti-terror powers

The Labour leader drove a wedge between Cameron and Clegg on civil liberties.

After the beheading of a second US journalist by Isis, and the threat to murder a British hostage, the first PMQs of the new term was an appropriately sombre occasion. David Cameron and Ed Miliband both delivered powerful condemnations of the terrorist group, the former declaring "A country like ours will not be cowed by these barbaric killers" and the latter speaking of a "universal sense of revulsion". 

After asking Cameron what the UK was doing to mobilise nations in the region against Isis and how it would use its chairing of the UN Security Council (avoiding the issue of whether the UK will take part in US-led airstrikes), Miliband moved on to the thorny issue of the coalition's domestic response. After the confusion that followed Cameron's statement on anti-terror powers on Monday, with the Lib Dems casting doubt over the plans announced by the PM, Miliband challenged him to confirm whether the reintroduction of relocation powers for terrorist suspects (forcing them to move home) would go ahead. In response, Cameron said that "it will go ahead", despite the Lib Dems briefing on Monday that "We have not definitively signed up to introducing relocation powers. We have agreed to look in detail at the options". While repeating his promise of cross-party talks on the issue, the PM's words appeared to be another attempt to bounce the Lib Dems into support. 

Miliband then asked Cameron whether his proposal to block British jihadists from returning home would be legally permissible (Clegg commented yesterday that "At the moment it is not obvious what one can do in a way which is consistent with our legal obligations". He replied: "I do believe it is legally permissible, but it’s going to require some work". In other words, the situation is no clearer than it was earlier this week. But Miliband's intervention effectively drove a wedge between the coalition parties on civil liberties. On an issue as significant as national security, the impression of a divided government is damaging for Cameron. 

The two other notable points from the session were the passion with which Cameron made the case against Scottish independence, and the increasingly perilous position of the Speaker, John Bercow. On Scotland, after a YouGov poll showed the Yes campaign just six points behind, the PM denounced the SNP's scaremongering over the NHS ("The only person who can privatise the NHS in Scotland is Alex Salmond") and its "chilling" threat to default on its share of the national debt.

In response to Tory MP Edward Leigh, who warned that a Yes vote would be "a national humiliation of catastrophic proportions" and who urged the party leaders to drop everything and stand "shoulder to shoulder" in defence of the Union, Cameron said: "The leaders of the parties in this House have all put aside their differences and said ‘in spite of the political differences we have, we all agree about one thing – not just that Scotland is better off inside the UK, the UK is better off with Scotland." Despite his party's enfeebled status in Scotland, today's exchanges were a reminder that Cameron is one of the most powerful defenders of the Union. 

After PMQs had concluded, Bercow faced a barrage of points of order from Tory MPs over the disputed appointment of Carol Mills as Clerk of the House. Such was the ferocity with which they attacked the Speaker (who many have long loathed since his election under Labour) that Edward Leigh was forced to urge the House to respect his authority. While most believe Bercow will ride the row out, his position has never looked so weak; irrevocable damage has now been done to his standing in the Commons.

Update: The Lib Dems have just issued a response to Cameron's comments on anti-terror powers. On blocking British suspects from returning home, a spokesman said:

"This issue remains under discussion in government and we have always said that we would be prepared to sign up to something that was both legal and practical."

"This is a very legally complicated issue and needs to be examined very closely."

And on relocation powers, he said:

“The issue of introducing relocation powers remains under discussion in government. We have agreed to look in detail at the options available to us.

“The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson, whose views we respect, recently recommended that the Government look at locational constraints that can be put on TPIMs suspects to make it easier to disrupt their networks and to reduce the risk of absconding.

“As a result, the Liberal Democrats are willing to look in more detail at options, including at whether the use of exclusion zones under the existing legislation could be expanded to meet the concerns that Anderson raises.”

As I expected, both suggest a far more ambiguous situation than Cameron's words implied. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.