“We’ve been here 33 minutes,” noted David Cameron at one point in today’s PMQs. One senses that the Prime Minister doesn’t enjoy it when his weekly inquisition overruns. Europe has become a headache for him, like all his recent predecessors, and Ed Miliband has every intention of exploiting this fact.
The Labour leader asked Cameron an admirably succinct question: what powers will he seek to repatriate at this week’s EU summit? After all, six weeks ago, at the height of the EU rebellion, Cameron told his backbenchers that a treaty renegotiation would give him a chance to do just that. But the PM, waffling on about “safeguards” and “the national interest”, offered nothing resembling an answer. As Miliband concluded: “the more he talked, the more confusing his position was.”
He went on: “why does the Prime Minister think it’s in the national interest to tell his backbenchers one thing … and to tell his European partners another?” Cameron responded, as he always does, by going on the attack. It was Labour that “surrendered” powers to Brussels and that would take us into the euro (had he not heard Ed Balls tell the House that Britain would not join the single currency in his “lifetime”?). It is indicative of Cameron’s woes that he now prefers to attack than to defend. The simple fact of the coalition means that he is in a lose-lose position on Europe. He can’t say which powers he wants back because to do so would enrage either the Lib Dems or the Tories (or both). Miliband’s quip that Cameron promised his backbenchers a “hand-bagging” but was now just offering “hand-wringing” was devastating because it was true. No fewer than eight Tory MPs asked Cameron about Europe and not one of them received a satisfactory answer.
But the Labour leader was notably less effective when he attacked the autumn statement for taking three times as much from the poorest third as from the richest third. He criticised Cameron for delaying a new tax on private jets (which would raise just £5m a year) but Cameron shot back: “he had 13 years to tax private jets and now some former leaders are jetting around in them.” In apparent desperation, Ed Balls thrust an IFS decile graph in Cameron’s direction. But while the facts are on Labour’s side, the politics aren’t (yet). For now, in the Commons at least, Miliband has much to gain by banging on about Europe.