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2 April 2014

PMQs review: Going postal over Royal Mail privatisation

Miliband's focused outrage cuts through Cameron's red mist.

By Rafael Behr

Anger can be a great asset in politics if it is channelled properly. When focused, it enhances performance. As red mist, it is ruinous. In Prime Minister’s question’s today, both Ed Miliband and David Cameron got sincerely angry –  sometimes the outrage is confected – but it was the Labour leader who was made effective. Cameron just got cross. 

Miliband’s questions focused on the privatisation of Royal Mail and, specifically, the charge that a prized asset was sold too cheap, with the result that Britain has been collectively diddled out of millions. (£750m according to a National Audit Office report.) The Prime Minister’s answer was that the sale netted billions for British taxpayers, secured Royal Mail’s commercial future and put shares in the hands of many of the company’s toiling employees.

Miliband was undeterred, querying a “gentleman’s agreement” according to which City investors pledged not to cash in their Royal Mail stakes early in pursuit of a quick windfall. Half had already done just that, according to the opposition leader. At that point the Prime Minister’s nails reached the bottom of his barrel of arguments and out came the sound of scraping: “We know why he’s asking these questions – because he’s paid to by the trade unions.”

When the question was repeated, Cameron veered even further off topic, quoting from a job advertisement for an advisor in Miliband’s office and using it as a pretext to highlight recent reports of division and anxiety in Labour’s upper echelons. That the opposition is not currently singing in immaculate harmony is self-evident but raising it as a desperate non-sequitur didn’t help the Prime Minister. Nor did his efforts to denigrate Miliband’s jdugement by reference to his old proximity to Gordon Brown (another perennial barrel-scraper). The reminder that Labour had once tried and failed to privatise Royal Mail too probed the source of some opposition awkwardness on this issue. The assertion that the party’s 2010 manifesto had included such a plan earned approving jeers from Tory MPs. It was, however, untrue.

Ultimately, Miliband won the exchange because he made a consistent and coherent argument: that the Tories flogged off a prized state asset at “mates rates” for the benefit of their “friends in the City”, while Cameron responded with indiscriminate denigration, slipping at one point into abuse. “Muppet” is not the most elevated jibe to have been recorded in Hansard. (No doubt Tories will be similarly disapproving of Miliband’s reference to the PM as the “The Dunce of Downing Street” but at least that was  part of a compound insult with a flicker of rhetorical imagination – “Not so much the Wolf of Wall Street but …”) Miliband’s friends have told me he knows PMQs is working well when he succeeds in provoking Cameron’s temper, which can be easily measured because the Prime Minister’s face flushes when he is annoyed, as he was today. “As red as a post box,” jeered the Labour leader, a little gratuitously.

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The privatisation of Royal Mail is an issue of limited political benefit to Labour, since the opposition is stuck with the sale as a fait accompli. Re-nationalisation isn’t on the agenda. But Miliband has judged, probably correctly, that the public doesn’t like the smell of the deal and doesn’t trust the Tories to have carried it out with the right motives or with the right people’s interests at heart. It is also something that, judging by today’s performance, provokes real moral outrage in the Labour leader and that can be a good look for him. The same cannot be said of the Prime Minister.

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