Ed Miliband arrived at the final PMQs before the election with a line he seemingly thought could not fail: will David Cameron rule out another VAT rise? Ever since Labour began this attack the Tories have merely said that they have “no plans” to increase the tax (the same formulation they used before raising it in 2010). At his Treasury select committee appearance yesterday, George Osborne failed five times to rule out a hike.
Miliband’s question was well-scripted: “On Monday, the PM announced his retirement plans and he said it was because he believed in giving straight answers to straight questions. After five years of PMQs, that was music to my ears… Will he now rule out a rise in VAT?” But against the Labour leader’s expectations, Cameron replied: “In 43 days time I plan to arrange his retirement, but he’s right, straight answers deserve straight questions and the answer is Yes.” From that point, a visibly surprised Miliband never recovered. It transpires that Osborne’s evasiveness yesterday was a ploy to throw Labour off the scent. The question that the party’s MPs will be asking is why Miliband entirely failed to anticipate this move.
Scenting blood, Cameron went on the offensive, demanding three times that Miliband rule out a rise in National Insurance; he failed to do so. Labour will now have to quickly consider whether to close down this attack with Tory-style ruthlessness. Today’s exchanges gave Cameron one of his clearest victories for months. Watching from the public gallery, Samantha Cameron and two of her children, Nancy and Elwen, relished the victory. The only consolation for Labour is that the Tories’ pledge not to raise VAT has raised the bar for other issues (Cameron notably failed to refuse out another cut in the top rate of income tax).
The PM had no shortage of material for the reminder of the session. When Labour’s Simon Danczuk asked a question, Cameron naturally responded by quoting at length from his New Statesman interview: “This is what he says: ‘Any Labour politician that says to you the knock on a door and Ed Miliband Is popular, they’re telling lies”. He similarly exploited Alex Salmond’s pledge, in another NS interview, to bring down a Conservative minority government, warning of “the ransom” Labour would have to pay to secure the SNP’s support and referring to Miliband as Salmond’s “poodle”. He ended with a Richard III joke previously deployed by Osborne: “It is worth remembering this is the last time somebody did in one of their relatives to get the top job and the country ended in chaos.”
Whether Cameron will return as PM remains very much an open question. But after the Tories’ worst week of this year, he dramatically raised his MPs’ spirits today, gifting his party that most precious commodity in politics: momentum.