After a couple of questions on Afghanistan, following the news that six British soldiers are presumed dead, Ed Miliband turned his attention to more domestic, and combative topics: specifically welfare.
What would the prime minister say, asked the Labour leader, to Tim Howells, a man from Dartford with a wife and three children, who faces losing his working tax credits when the minimum number of hours that must be worked to claim them rises from 16 hours to 24?
David Cameron had a reply: the 24-hour threshold was for couples, meaning each one only has to work 12 hours.
The problem is, replied Miliband, that his wife spends her time looking after the couple’s three children. And Howells simply can’t find the extra hours the government is asking him to do.
Cameron effectively acknowledged the unfairness, but was able to turn it to his own advantage:
I don’t think it is unreasonable when we say to single people that they have to work 16 hours… to ask a couple to work an average of 12 hours each.
He then blamed the deficit for having to make such decisions and asked, if Ed Miliband was unwilling to make them, “How on earth [would he] deal with the deficit?”
The same pattern of exchange occurred over child benefit (the latest wranglings over which I revealed on this blog earlier). Miliband had a more effective attack this time, quoting the PM’s words back at him:
He said, ‘I like child benefit, I am not going to change child benefit, I am not going to means test child benefit.’
Again the Labour leader used his “broken promises” attack on the prime minister; again Cameron replies that Miliband was unable to take “difficult decisions”:
Of course it’s a difficult decision, life is about difficult decisions, government is about difficult decisions. Isn’t it a pity he’s just not capable of making one?
A few things to note from this:
- Cameron defended his child benefit policy by insisting it was a “difficult decision”, and mentioned nothing about tackling the “cliff edge” issue he has previously mentioned, but which the Treasury is finding it nigh-on impossible to solve. That could be a hint it is not going to get solved, and George Osborne has in effect won this battle.
- Miliband’s attack on the PM for breaking his promises is effective, but nowhere near as effective as Cameron painting the Labour leader as incapable of leading or taking difficult decisions.
- Cameron is getting much better at detail. When Miliband used the tax credits line, the PM had a complete grasp of the policy and why it was important. And this was on a day when other attacks were much more likely: child benefit, the NHS, or the lack of a growth strategy, for example.
- Miliband appeared to make a deliberate decision not to use Vince Cable’s attack on his own government for lacking a strategic vision. Does that suggest his attempts to sketch out a credible business policy yesterday failed so dismally that he felt unable to attack on this topic for fear of being embarrassed by the PM?