A long-overdue PMQs success for Ed Miliband
The news that GDP contracted by 0.2% in the final quarter of 2011 was always going to dominate the exchanges at prime minister’s questions, as it will continue to dominate political debate over the coming days and weeks.
It was therefore the obvious, and correct, choice for Ed Miliband to focus his questions to the prime minister on the figures. After months of suffering through attacks from the PM that the last government was entirely to blame for the economic situation, suddenly Miliband’s line that “people are fed up with his excuses” seemed to pack a bit more punch.
Could it be that since we still lack the hard evidence that the coalition’s economic policies are producing growth, Cameron’s ‘we inherited a mess from Labour’ line has finally lost its potency? Miliband’s follow-up that the government’s approach was “characterised by total arrogance” felt like a blow that landed, too. Cameron and Osborne will now need to defend their insistence on the correctness of their strategy without appearing out of touch or complacent. The scrutiny will now turn on them.
The prime minister admitted that the GDP figures were “disappointing”, but cited three reasons: the “overhang of debt” the coalition inherited, higher food and fuel prices, and the crisis in the eurozone. All contributing factors no doubt, but not a very effective means of rebuttal for the PMQs-style interrogation.
A good deal of the Labour leader’s success today stemmed from the fact that he avoided the pre-prepared jokes that have dominated his remarks in the past – allowing the figures to speak from themselves was a very good decision. It meant that Cameron was the one delivering the forced-sounding comments – the line “there are two parties taking responsibility for clearing up the mess, and one party not taking responsibility for causing the mess” being a good example. The longed-for roar from the coalition benches didn't materialise.
The same applied when Miliband shifted the focus to the NHS. A year on and the coalition’s reforms are still struggling to win people over, as Miliband rather adroitly reminded the PM by citing the reservations of the coalition-majority health select committee. In response, Cameron said:”I’ve learned to expect that when it comes to the NHS you should always expect to get a second opinion. Or maybe a third opinion.”
The goal of the opposition leader at PMQs is to ask a question to which the PM doesn’t have an answer. That it was Cameron who again had to come back with a glib joke demonstrated that Miliband had managed just this – the first time I can remember him doing this in ages, if at all.
Nothing the PM tried to get back on top of the exchanges really worked. An attempt to hit Miliband where it hurts (in his constituency, that is) by quoting a pro-reform GP from Doncaster fell flat. A reference to the rebellious Labour peers on the Welfare Bill was similarly ineffective. After all, Nick Clegg’s Upper House colleagues haven’t exactly been toeing the party line, either. A long succession of planted questions from Conservative MPs about the benefit cap did nothing to improve the PM's performance.
A long-overdue success for Ed, then. His supporters will be desperately hoping for more of the same – he just can’t rely on having the GDP figures on his side every week.