Sandwiched between George Osborne’s autumn statement and the public sector pensions strike, today’s PMQs was the most vicious for months. Bravely, Ed Miliband led on the strike, pre-empting the inevitable deluge of planted questions from Tory MPs. He side-stepped the issue of whether the action was right or wrong and simply asked the PM why so many public sector workers (“many of whom haven’t been on strike before”) felt the need to strike. Cameron didn’t provide anything resembling a answer, so the Labour leader answered for him. He correctly observed that part-time workers earning less than £15,000 will be forced to pay more under the reforms. As Nigel Stanley explained at Left Foot Forward:
This is because the government will measures workers’ income not by looking at their gross pay, but their full time equivalent earnings. In other words someone working half-time with a £14,000 slary is treated as earning £28,000.
But Cameron, flanked this week by Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, seemed entirely unaware of this fact. Rather than responding with arguments, he resorted to insult, denouncing Miliband as “weak, left-wing and irresponsible” (a line repeated at the end of the session). Using “left-wing” as an insult made Cameron sound unusually ideological (one was reminded of Republicans who attack their opponents as “liberal”) but it’s clearly a charge that the Tories believe will resonate with voters. Miliband went on to quip that some of the strikers (“the dinner lady, the cleaner, the nurse”) “earn in a week what the Chancellor pays for his annual skiing holiday”. The line was fluffed (he should have said “earn in a year”) but it still worked in the House.
The Labour leader eventually turned to yesterday’s fiscal horror show, reminding MPs that Cameron previously pledged to “balance the books” by 2015. But Cameron hit back: “he complains about the level of borrowing but his answer is to borrow even more.” The difference, of course, is that while Labour would have borrowed to fund growth, the coalition is borrowing to meet the cost of higher unemployment. But that’s not an easy argument for Miliband to make in the current climate. The events of yesterday will make it even harder for Labour to persuade the public of the need for further fiscal stimulus.
Perhaps the most notable thing about today’s session was that Miliband sounded more effective on the strike than he did on the economy. Relentlessly mocked for his ambiguous stance on the walk-out, he come off the fence today and turned in one of his best PMQs’ performances of the year. The lesson, once again, is that it pays to be bold.