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1 February 2012

PMQs review: Cameron is saved by his benefits cap

The Prime Minister's attack on Labour's welfare stance denied Miliband another victory.

By George Eaton

Whichever Conservative came up with the line that “no family should receive more in out-of-work benefits than the average family receives for going out of work” deserves some sort of prize. This prime piece of populism saved David Cameron from what looked like certain defeat at today’s PMQs.

Ed Miliband began well, challenging the government’s failure to force banks to reveal how many employees earn more than £1m. Buoyed by his victory over Stephen Hester’s bonus, he ridiculed the notion that “the class war against the bankers is going to be led by his (Cameron’s) cabinet of millionaires.” An exasperated Cameron responded by accusing Miliband of “hypocrisy” (as if the Labour leader was solely responsible for the failures of the last government) and was forced to withdraw the charge by the Speaker.

Miliband also had the better of the exchanges on the NHS, an issue that is now the government’s biggest political headache. He repeated the familiar litany of organisations opposed to the changes, leaving Cameron to fall back on an old Blair quote about reform in the face of resistance. Indeed, as Sophie Elmhirst reveals in this week’s NS, opposition to the plans is mounting in the Prime Minister’s own constituency of Witney.

But a seemingly endless series of planted questions from Tory MPs on the benefits cap (the government’s welfare reform bill returns to the Commons today) meant this was an equally uncomfortable session for Miliband. Cameron repeatedly demanded of the opposition frontbench: “Are you with us or are you against us?” It was a crude but effective tactic. With 76 per cent of the public, including 69 per cent of Labour supporters, on his side, the PM relishes every opportunity to remind voters of Labour’s equivocation. The popularity of the cap, regardless of its morality, is a huge problem for Miliband’s party. The family down the road living off benefits grates more with people than the banker in his tower.

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“They’re not flip-flopping over the benefit cap they’re just flopping,” he said in reply to one Tory MP. The gloomy faces on the Labour benches showed that they knew the day was lost.