As I predicted he would, Ed Miliband used PMQs to zero in on the contradiction between David Cameron’s declaration yesterday that “money is no object” in providing flood relief and Patrick McLoughlin’s warning earlier today that there is no “blank cheque”. If money is no object, he asked Cameron, will he reconsider the government’s plan to make 550 Environment Agency flood staff redundant?
After his loose rhetoric yesterday, the PM was left desperately trying to wriggle out of his commitment. He repeated his pledge to introduce a grant for all affected homeowners and businesses, a £10m fund to help farmers, and to defer tax payments for businesses, with 100 per cent business rate relief. But on the fate of the Environment Agency staff he remained mute. As Miliband reminded him of “what sounded like a grand promise”, Cameron was forced to try and change the subject to Labour’s spending plans and to the governent’s success in reducing the benefit. Since it had managed the budget well, he said, there was no need for “people to worry about penny pinching”. But penny pinching is exactly the impression given by his decision to proceed with staff redundancies.
Cameron eventually resorted to the age-old cry of a PM in trouble: the opposition leader was seeking to “divide the House when we should be coming together for the nation”. But Miliband’s calm and reasoned tone means this charge is unlikely to stick. In what is always difficult territory for an opposition leader, he came out on top. After the session had ended, No. 10 briefed that there would be no new money made available and that any extra funding would come from contigency budgets, a clear reversal of Cameron’s pledge yesterday.
The other significant moment came when Cameron was pressed by Labour’s Cathy Jamieson on whether he could help Danny Alexander, who has said that the 45p tax rate will be scrapped over his “dead body”, by ruling out any further tax cuts for top earners (“or should the Chief Secretary up his life insurance?” she added). Cameron, sounding more sceptical than before, emphasised that his overriding “priority” was to cut taxes for low and middle earners, but still refused to rule out cutting the top rate again. For Labour, such answers are a political gift. For the Tories, however, the significance of Cameron’s answer was his reference to “middle” earners, which they view (perhaps wrongly) as a hint that relief could be offered to those who have been sucked into the 40p tax band by fiscal drag.
Finally, after disastrously fielding an all-male frontbench last week and handing Miliband his strongest PMQs victory for months, the Tories went to predictably great lengths to avoid repeating this error, with seven women on the frontbench and a total of 14 in view of the cameras. If the Tories continue to ensure greater gender parity in future weeks, Miliband may well have done them a favour.