Labour's acting leader Harriet Harman speaks at the party's HQ on 18 May 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: A win for Harman as Cameron prevaricates over Heathrow

Labour's acting leader declared: "He's in a holding pattern above Heathrow and Boris won't let him land".

For the first time since she returned as acting leader, Harriet Harman unambiguously defeated David Cameron at today's PMQs. Labour's decision to swiftly endorse the Davies Commission's recommendation of a third runway at Heathrow allowed her to ably expose the PM's prevarication. After Cameron warned that the "legal position" meant he could not say anything before studying the report (merely promising a decision by the end of the year), Harman gently gibed: "They’re briefing it’s not going to happen. It looks like the PM has been overruled by the member for Uxbridge. He should tell him he’s not the leader of the Tory party yet. Will he stand up for Britain’s interests or will he just be bullied by Boris?"

In desperation, Cameron sought to change the subject (a tell-tale sign that he is losing) to last week's unexpectedly stable child poverty figures. Harman responded by deploying her best line: "He's in a holding pattern above Heathrow and Boris won't let him land" (likely crafted by her aide and former stand-up Ayesha Hazarika). Cameron rightly reminded the House that Ed Miliband almost resigned over the third runway in government: "I seem to remember that the last leader of the Labour Party, although we've been churning through a few recently, had a totally different position on airports to the one she has just offered" (though Miliband himself U-turned before the election). But that only highlighted why Harman was able to pull off a victory that Miliband would have struggled to achieve. The PM's lukewarm welcome for Davies means that the odds remain against the third runway ever being built. 

The other politically notable moment of the session came when Cameron confirmed to the DUP's Nigel Dodds that the number of MPs would be reduced from 650 to 600 by the end of the parliament. Dennis Skinner made his first PMQs intervention of the new term when he berated the PM for not requesting EU aid for miners. Cameron, who was previously forced to apologise after describing the 83-year-old as a "dinosaur", again deployed this charge but with greater wit than before: "Very good to see the Labour Party in full voice cheering on Jurassic Park - I would stick to the movie."

The first PMQs since the Tunisia atrocity had started on an appropriately sombre note. In response to Harman, Cameron said that a taskforce would be established to coordinate support for families and victims and grimly announced that the number of Britons confirmed dead had risen to 27.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

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