David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street before PMQs earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Cameron's surprise pledge not to raise VAT floors Miliband

The Labour leader was caught unawares by the PM's promise not to increase the tax. 

Ed Miliband arrived at the final PMQs before the election with a line he seemingly thought could not fail: will David Cameron rule out another VAT rise? Ever since Labour began this attack the Tories have merely said that they have "no plans" to increase the tax (the same formulation they used before raising it in 2010). At his Treasury select committee appearance yesterday, George Osborne failed five times to rule out a hike. 

Miliband's question was well-scripted: "On Monday, the PM announced his retirement plans and he said it was because he believed in giving straight answers to straight questions. After five years of PMQs, that was music to my ears... Will he now rule out a rise in VAT?" But against the Labour leader's expectations, Cameron replied: "In 43 days time I plan to arrange his retirement, but he’s right, straight answers deserve straight questions and the answer is Yes." From that point, a visibly surprised Miliband never recovered. It transpires that Osborne's evasiveness yesterday was a ploy to throw Labour off the scent. The question that the party's MPs will be asking is why Miliband entirely failed to anticipate this move. 

Scenting blood, Cameron went on the offensive, demanding three times that Miliband rule out a rise in National Insurance; he failed to do so. Labour will now have to quickly consider whether to close down this attack with Tory-style ruthlessness. Today's exchanges gave Cameron one of his clearest victories for months. Watching from the public gallery, Samantha Cameron and two of her children, Nancy and Elwen, relished the victory. The only consolation for Labour is that the Tories' pledge not to raise VAT has raised the bar for other issues (Cameron notably failed to refuse out another cut in the top rate of income tax). 

The PM had no shortage of material for the reminder of the session. When Labour's Simon Danczuk asked a question, Cameron naturally responded by quoting at length from his New Statesman interview: "This is what he says: 'Any Labour politician that says to you the knock on a door and Ed Miliband Is popular, they’re telling lies". He similarly exploited Alex Salmond's pledge, in another NS interview, to bring down a Conservative minority government, warning of "the ransom" Labour would have to pay to secure the SNP's support and referring to Miliband as Salmond's "poodle". He ended with a Richard III joke previously deployed by Osborne: "It is worth remembering this is the last time somebody did in one of their relatives to get the top job and the country ended in chaos."

Whether Cameron will return as PM remains very much an open question. But after the Tories' worst week of this year, he dramatically raised his MPs' spirits today, gifting his party that most precious commodity in politics: momentum. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.