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12 January 2011

PMQs review: Miliband leaves Cameron floundering on bank bonuses

Cameron’s tough words in opposition returned to haunt him.

By George Eaton

For a man who once declared that he was “fed up with” Punch-and-Judy politics, David Cameron is remarkably fond of personal insults. At today’s PMQs he repeatedly quipped that Alan Johnson “can’t count” (a joke that seemed less impressive with each hearing) and once more damned Ed Miliband as the “nothing man” of British politics.

For good measure, Miliband compared George Osborne to “poisonous fungus”. It’s safe to say this won’t be a good year for bipartisanship.

With bank bonuses the subject of the week, this was always likely to be an easy win for Miliband, and so it proved. Throughout the session, the Labour leader skilfully contrasted the Tories’ tough words in opposition with their weak performance in government.

He noted their past pledge to ban all cash bonuses over £2,000, before sarcastically asking the PM: “How is he getting on with that policy?” The answer, with the Barclays boss Bob Diamond in line for a bonus of £8m and the RBS chief executive, Stephen Hester, due to receive a bonus of £2.5m, is, presumably, not very well.

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Cameron attempted to regain ground by insisting that the coalition’s bank levy will eventually raise more than Labour’s bonus tax (this year, at least, it won’t). but ultimately played his favourite “son of Brown” riff. Cue repeated references to Miliband’s Treasury past and his membership of the government that unforgivably awarded Fred Goodwin a knighthood for “services to banking”.

But all too often, this amounted to the claim that if the Conservatives’ performance on the banks had been poor, Labour’s had been worse. It was an uninspiring response that impressed few. Asked why he had failed to implement Labour’s plan to force the banks to disclose all bonuses over £1m, Cameron replied: “You have had 13 years to put those rules in place.” A fair point, but it hardly explains the coalition’s own inertia.

Miliband, noting that Stephen Hester had given the proposal his personal approval, was able to deliver the killer line, referring to Cameron: “He is more of a defender of the banks than even the banks themselves.”

In bank bonuses, the Labour leader has found an issue that allows him to exploit coalition divisions, rally public support and cheer his own backbenchers. On this subject, he will enjoy many more victories over Cameron.