David Cameron delivers a speech to business leaders at a conference in the Old Granada TV Studios on January 8, 2015 in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Cameron's Green shield protects him from Miliband's TV debates attack

The PM's charge that the Labour leader was running scared of the Greens allowed him to avoid humiliation. 

The debate about the debates came to today's PMQs. After David Cameron's self-interested declaration that he won't participate unless the Greens are included, Ed Miliband wryly reminded him of what "a party leader" said in 2010: "It would have been feeble to find some excuse to back out. So I thought we've got to stick at this. We've got to do it." Cameron replied by merely restating his original position: "You cannot have two minor parties [the Lib Dems and Ukip] without the third minor party" (a line that prompted a cry of pain from Nick Clegg). He added: "So I put the question to him, why is he so frightened of debating the Green Party?"

It was, as Miliband later said, "a pathetic excuse". But it was enough for Cameron to make it through the session without humiliation. To the PM's charge that he was "chicken" when it comes to the Greens, Miliband reasonably replied that it was up to the broadcasters who they invite. But this sidestep, avoiding the direct question of whether he thinks the Greens should be included, allowed Cameron to score some points.

The Labour leader delivered the best line when he declared in his final question: "In the words of his heroine, Lady Thatcher, he is frit." But Cameron revealed his calculation when he responded by changing the subject to the economy: "He can't talk about unemployment because it's coming down. He can't talk about growth and the economy because it's going up. He can't talk about his energy price freeze because it's turned into a total joke. I have to say to him, Mr Speaker, the more time he and I can spend in a television studio and on television, the happier I will be. But please, if he's got any more questions left, ask a serious one." 

Cameron's accurate belief is that voters are largely uninterested in a process-centred row about the TV debates. As pollsters like to say, the issue lacks "salience". Few, if any, will change their votes based on whether or not Cameron takes part in TV debates. Scarred by the experience of 2010, when Nick Clegg stole his insurgent mantle, he has calculated that the political cost of avoiding the debates is lower than the cost of participating (and allowing Miliband and Nigel Farage to land easy hits on him). Today's PMQs showed that Cameron is relaxed about riding out this argument. 

Meanwhile, the Tories are now briefing that Cameron is prepared to take part in a five-way debate (the three main party leaders, Ukip and the Greens) and a head-to-head with Miliband, but not a three-way debate with the Labour leader and Clegg. The reason for this stance is easily identified: a debate between the two coalition leaders and Miliband would allow the latter to play the outsider - the role that so aided Clegg in 2010. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The promises of Brexit can't be kept. You can only decide which bits to betray

Vote Leave's great success was in presenting a menu of contradictory options as if they could all be secured. 

If Britain leaves the European Union but retains its membership of the single market and the customs union, has it really left? Barry Gardiner doesn’t think so. Labour’s shadow trade secretary, writing for the Guardian, argues that to satisfy those who voted Leave, Britain must regain control of its own borders – forcing it out of the single market in order to lose free movement rights – and its own laws, forcing it out of both the customs union and single market to avoid regulatory harmonisation.

Jeremy Corbyn has argued that single market membership and EU membership are one and the same, as has Caroline Flint. They have kept the options open on the customs union. Are they right?

As I wrote yesterday, it’s hard to explain what drove Britain’s Brexit vote without conceding that objections to the rules of the single market played a significant role. Gardiner is undoubtedly right to say that two of the biggest drivers of the vote were control over borders and laws, both of which cannot be achieved while remaining within the single market. Neither can the third biggest driver, which was more money for public services in general and the NHS in particular – that £350m a week. Because if the United Kingdom retains its single market membership, it will continue to “send money to Brussels”.

There’s a “but” coming, though, and it’s a big one. The first problem is that while the majority of people who voted to leave did so for reasons that cannot be fulfilled if we remain in the single market, those votes weren’t enough to take Britain out of the European Union. Leave only triumphed because it also secured the votes of people who thought it would take the country out of the political project but would retain a Norway-style arrangement.

The second is that those three big mandates cannot be reconciled with each other. If the United Kingdom leaves the single market and the customs union, then the promise of more money for the NHS will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to deliver, at least not in the way that people envisaged. (When people said they wanted £350m extra in the NHS, they didn’t mean “in order to pay for drugs that are more expensive, to recoup the cost of our new regulatory regime and to plug the recruitment gap left by EU citizens with high-priced locums”. They meant that the NHS would do everything it does now and more, not run to stand still.)

The great success of Vote Leave was in presenting a whole menu of contradictory options as if they could be served on one dish. But you cannot have the Extra Hot and the Lemon & Herb on the same piece of chicken. You have to choose. The big failure of the political class has been not to advocate for one of those options over the other. (Theresa May has effectively been running on a ticket of “Extra Hot, Lemon & Herb, and the French will pay for it”.)

You cannot have a Brexit that unlocks trade deals with India and the rest of the BRICS (five major emerging national economies) and reduce the uncontrolled flow of people from elsewhere around the world to the UK. You can’t have a more generously-funded public realm and pursue a Brexit that makes everyone poorer. You have to choose. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.