When Harriet Harman rose to speak at today’s PMQs, Conservative MPs mockingly gestured for her to cross the floor (Andy Burnham yesterday attacked “George and Harriet’s two-child test” in reference to the proposed tax credit changes). After the week Labour’s acting leader has had, this could have been a whitewash for David Cameron. But while the Prime Minister ultimately won the day, Harman delivered a typically robust performance.
She began with some well-judged questions on Greece, with Cameron stating that while the UK would not “bail out eurozone countries”, it would be prepared to offer humanitarian assistance if Greece left the single currency. Harman then challenged the PM over some of the individual welfare cuts she vowed to oppose at Monday night’s PLP meeting. When Cameron casually dismissed her warning that a higher minimum wage would not compensate those whose tax credits will be reduced, she declared: “I don’t need to be patronised by the Prime Minister about not understanding the minimum wage – we introduced it. And the fact of the matter is, the IFS says three million families will be at least £1,000 a year worse off”. Harman also rightly homed in on the indefensible decision to reduce the Employment and Support Allowance for some ill or disabled claimants to the level of Jobseeker’s Allowance. After anatagonising her party with her support for the two-child tax credit limit and her call to abstain on the welfare bill, Harman was seeking to remind her MPs that she’s one of them. She concluded: “The Prime Minister says he wants to govern for one nation. Instead, he is just governing for the Tory party.”
But by then Cameron had taken the upper hand after Harman attacked the Tories’ plan to force trade union members to opt-in to paying the political levy (which would significantly hit Labour funding). He replied: “If you want to give money to a party it should be an act of free will, not something that is taken out of your pay packet without you being told about it properly. If this wasn’t happening in the Labour Party they would be saying this is appalling, they would be saying there should be consumer protection. Why is there such a blind spot when it comes to the trade unions?” When Labour MPs reminded him that the Tories were elected with the support of just 24 per cent of registered voters (in response to the new 50 per cent turnout threshold for strikes), Cameron replied: “People affected by strikes don’t get to vote”.
At the close, he inevitably relished in Labour’s woes: “I thought she was the moderate one and the leadership were the ones who were heading off to the left. They oppose every single one of our anti-strike laws, they oppose all our welfare changes and one of them even describes terrorist groups as ‘friends’. Mr Speaker, in the week we find out more about Pluto, it’s clear they want to colonise the Red Planet.” But Harman’s resilient display, which saw her get the better of the PM on living standards, earned her some credit after a fraught week.