Ed Miliband campaigns before the Rochester and Strood by-election on October 23, 2014 in Chatham. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband shows his confidence on the EU

The Labour leader regards his party's commitment to membership as a political strength. 

The most significant thing about today's PMQs was Ed Miliband's choice of subject matter: EU membership. If Labour once feared its stance on the issue was a weakness, it now regards it as a strength. After being rebuked by Angela Merkel for his demand to abandon the free movement of people, it is ever harder for David Cameron to argue that he can secure the reforms he believes are necessary for Britain to remain in the EU. As a result, he is being forced to flirt with the possibility of withdrawal. 

Pressed by Miliband on whether he was prepared to campaign for an "out" vote (an option he previously ruled out), the PM filibustered. "I want Britain to stay in a reformed European Union," he said. But is it possible to reform Europe? Many Conservative MPs no longer believe it is, a divide Miliband skillfully exploited today. "There's no point giving us the 'fight them on the beaches' speech because the last time he tried that was over Jean-Claude Juncker and he lost 26 votes to 2. That's his leadership in Europe," he said, and the Tory benches were notably muted. 

In contrast to Cameron, Miliband was unambiguous: "I want to stay in the EU". As well as being buoyed by polls showing support for membership at a 23-year high, Labour regards its commitment to the EU as one of its few trump cards on business (Miliband told Cameron that business leaders would have their "heads in their hands" over his stance - and many do ). But a significant number of Labour MPs continue to fear that Cameron's charge that the party is too "chicken" to "trust the people" is one that could hurt it during the election campaign. 

With the aid of an arsenal of critical Labour quotes, Cameron held his own in the chamber. He noted that Alistair Darling ("about the only person on the Labour benches who had any economic credibility") had argued that an EU referendum was inevitable ("It's a boil that has to be lanced"), that shadow deputy leader of the House Thomas Docherty had warned Labour was in a "dreadful position" and that even John Prescott was now giving Miliband lectures on the English language (although the sight of Cameron deriding the working class northerner is unlikely to have endeared him to all). 

The other notable point from today's session was the co-ordinated Labour assault on PM over VAT. With Cameron again refusing to rule out another rise, it is clear this will be a key election attack line for the opposition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.