David Cameron, a man whose government has so far blamed everything but its policies for the parlous state of the British economy, finally changed tack at today’s PMQs. “The government takes absolute responsibility for everything that happens in the economy,” he declared in the manner of a Soviet apparatchik. But given that his party’s poll ratings have risen even as growth has fallen, perhaps that’s not a surprise.
The Prime Minister’s admission took the sting out of Ed Miliband’s attack before it had even begun. Could Cameron confirm that he expected unemployment to rise to 2.8m, the Labour leader asked. To which the PM simply replied that the forecasts are now made by the Office for Budget Responsibility (“not fixed and fiddled by ministers”) and that he was doing everything he could to help people get back into work. It was a typically platitudinous response but, somehow, it was enough for Cameron to dodge Miliband’s attack.
From this point onwards, the session only got worse for the Labour leader. Turning his eye to Miliband’s new economic policy, Cameron declared: “last year he marched against the cuts, now he tells us he accepts the cuts, now he’s telling us he wants to spend more and borrow more. He’s so incompetent he can’t even do a U-turn properly.” In fact, Labour’s new stance is not the contradictory mess that some suggest. The cuts are harming the economy, Balls and Miliband say, so we won’t be able to reverse them. It’s not post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory. But in the bear pit of PMQs, all nuance is lost. Cameron couldn’t believe his luck. Until now he has only been able to call Miliband “wrong”, now he can call him a “flip-flopper”, a far more potent charge as Nick Clegg will testify.
“What he needs to do is change course!” an increasingly exasperated Miliband cried. To which Cameron, with the nonchalance of a man brushing away a fly, replied: “he changes course every day, he’s an expert in changing course.” Labour’s hope is that its new stance will earn it long-term credibility even at the expense of short-term popularity. But amid Cameron’s onslaught, some must fear that it will lose both.