In his final question at today’s PMQs (the last of the year), Ed Miliband derided David Cameron for reeling off “lists of statistics” (1.2 million more people in work, 24 million people out of tax, a record 30 million people in employment and so on), rather than answering his questions. The line prompted jeers from Tory MPs because Miliband had spent much of the session highlighting his own stats of choice: energy bills up by £70, childcare costs up by £300, average wages down by £364.
All were designed to reinforce Labour’s message that Cameron is presiding over a “cost-of-living crisis” but today’s session highlighted the danger for Miliband in relying on this line of attack. With the economy growing at its fastest rate since the crisis and unemployment falling rapidly, Cameron will be able to point to ever more progress as the election draws closer. Wages will likely start rising faster than inflation next year, the UK economy will pass its pre-recession peak and employment will continue to surge.
The risk for Labour is that just as its “too far, too fast” critique of the cuts lost potency after growth returned (polls show that voters now believe cuts are good for the economy), so its “cost-of-living” attack will weaken as the public begin to feel the benefits of the recovery. Having been forced to retire his ‘flatlining’ hand gesture, Ed Balls may soon be forced to do the same with his new ‘finger down’ (in reference to the fall in living standards). Rather than trying to win a stats war with Cameron, Miliband need to focus on fleshing out his vision of a different kind of economy and a more equal society. It is this that will convince voters that Labour represents a genuine alternative, regardless of the progress Cameron can point to.
The session was also notable for a new attempt by Cameron to drive a wedge between Miliband and Balls. He declared at one point: “Ah – we’ve got a new hand gesture from the shadow chancellor! I’d have thought after today’s briefing in the papers the hand gesture from the shadow chancellor would be ‘bye bye’ – you don’t need it to be Christmas to know you’re sitting next to a turkey!” The political logic behind these constant attacks is that the more the Tories deride Balls, the harder it becomes for Miliband to move him should he decide that Labour needs a new messenger as well as a new message. But while Miliband is undoubtedly ruthless enough to move Balls, the odds are still on him remaining shadow chancellor until the election.
The other significant moment came when Cameron was asked about allegations that Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers broke the ministerial code while at Transport by meeting a lobbyist campaigning for a £400m railway depot in Hertfordshire. He replied by saying that he had seen a copy of the cabinet secretary’s response and that it would be published “in the next few days”. With parliament breaking up for recess tomorrow, Labour is now demanding that the findings are published “immediately”.