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8 December 2010

PMQs review: Miliband fights back – and wins

Cameron frustrated as Miliband pins him down on tuition fees.

By George Eaton

After last week’s debacle, Ed Miliband needed to put in a winning performance at today’s PMQs and, thanks to some sharp questions on tuition fees, he did not disappoint.

Miliband began by asking the Prime Minister a simple question: “Will English students pay the highest fees of any public university in the industrialised world?” Cameron replied that the figures are “well known”, but blundered by insisting they were higher still in the United States. Tuition fees are higher in the US only at private institutions.

As the exchanges continued, Cameron persistently returned to the point that Labour commissioned the Browne review, another odd response. That a government orders a review does not mean it is bound to accept its conclusions.

His claim that the Budget deficit made higher fees unavoidable was equally disingenuous. As the sixth-largest economy in the world, Britain can easily afford to fund free higher education through general taxation. In public expenditure terms, the UK spends just 0.7 per cent of its GDP on higher education, well below the OECD average of 1 per cent. The decision to triple fees is a political choice, not an economic necessity.

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After Miliband’s worst week since becoming Labour leader, it was a relief to see him display some much-needed wit. His sharp response to Cameron’s “student politician” gibe will have impressed even some Tories: “I was a student politician, but I wasn’t hanging around with people who were throwing bread rolls and wrecking restaurants.” But get ready for the inevitable accusations of “class war”.

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Elsewhere, as he mocked the Lib Dems’ four-way split on fees, he quipped: “If the Kremlin is spying on the Lib Dems, I’m not surprised. They want a bit of light relief.”

By the end, Miliband was able to steal Cameron’s own insult and declare triumphantly: “A week really is a long time in politics, not waving but drowning.” It was a necessary admission that last week’s session hadn’t gone to plan. But if he can put in more performances like this, Miliband might just begin to win over some of his doubters.