As Chris Bryant, the Labour MP, reminded his Twitter followers during today’s PMQs:
Blair was right about Hague: good jokes, poor judgement. They are good jokes though.
And there were some excellent jokes from the foreign secretary, who was standing in for the prime minister and DPM today.
First he began by mocking Ed Balls, the man whose carping from the sidelines often winds up David Cameron into a red-faced fury. Hague said to Harriet Harman, who was leading the charge for Labour:
I congratulate her on not having the shadow chancellor sitting next to her, it makes her questions easier to hear. The chancellor is at the G20, I presume the shadow chancellor is off conducting another survey into what people think of him. We could have told him that for free – always better value under the Conservatives.
It was a curiously flat PMQs today, partially because we have heard the stock questions and answers from both party leaders on each of the issues that was raised.
Ed Miliband brought up growth, David Cameron countered with low interest rates. Miliband asked about police cuts, Cameron responded with figures about the proportion of back office staff to frontline officers. Miliband asked about nursing cuts, Cameron mentioned Labour’s refusal to guarantee real-terms rises in health spending at the last election.
But two issues caught the eye: the first is the battle over Francois Hollande. The socialist French prime minister’s election poses a risk for both leaders. Hollande’s rhetoric about growth versus austerity has echoed much of what Ed Balls has been saying in this country.
Therefore if the French economy begins to recover, it gives Cameron the headache of having an apparently viable alternative economic model thriving just across the Channel. If however it fails, with growth stagnating and the bond markets starting to punish France, it will give the prime minister the perfect ammunition with which to attack the Balls plan. Read more
The most interesting thing about today’s session of prime minister’s questions was not the contest between Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman (although Harman was, as always, an impressive stand-in, and Clegg did better than he previously has), but the reaction of Tory backbenchers, who were given their chance to put the deputy PM on the spot.
Clegg always struggles a bit in PMQs, partly through no fault of his own – his parliamentary party is simply not big enough to give him loud support against the heckles of Labour and the silence of many of the Tories who enjoy seeing him squirm.
But things were even worse today. Not only did his coalition colleagues fail to lend him their vocal support, but several of them openly tried to attack or embarrass him. Read more
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: Read more
Michael Gove featured heavily in today’s PMQs. Ed Miliband began his questions by asking whether the prime minister would condemn the education secretary’s recent comments that the Leveson inquiry was having a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech.
But it was during the inevitable debate on the health bill that Mr Gove played an unspoken, but important role.
Ministers seem to be changing their tone in a subtle way when defending the NHS reforms, taking on some of the tactics deployed by the education secretary when he was pushing through the Free Schools agenda.
Instead of talking up how radical the plan is, the government is now downplaying it. We hear that the bill is about “evolution, not revolution”, and more strikingly that it is building on what Labour did while they were in government.
It was this latter point that the prime minister stressed today, reeling off a list of former Labour health secretaries or advisers who back competition in the NHS (which is not the same as backing the bill, mind). He added: Read more
In his second answer at prime minister’s questions today, David Cameron asked a question of Ed Miliband:
As we are being kept here to vote on the publication of the NHS risk register, why don’t you ask a question about that?
It seemed like a strange tactic. Why would the prime minister, who has been ordered by the information commissioner to publish the document detailing the potential risks of his NHS bill, want to bring up the fact that he is refusing to comply? Surely this was a subject on which Labour, not the government, holds the upper hand?
Only after the prime minister had put the challenge several times did we find out why he was so keen to talk about it. Read more
When Andy Burnham returned to the health beat for Labour, some in Andrew Lansley’s team were delighted. This is the man, they pointed out, who said he would not ringfence spending on the NHS. He even said that to do so would be “irresponsible” – hardly a vote-winning tactic.
David Cameron clearly thinks the same thing – that by shifting the focus of the health debate onto Burnham and his refusal to promise extra money for the NHS, he can nullify the controversy surrounding his health bill.
That is why, several times during today’s session of prime minister’s questions, Cameron insisted:
That’s what you get if you get Labour: no money, no reform, no good health service.
It was an interesting decision by Ed Miliband not to ask David Cameron about Fred Goodwin’s knighthood today, especially when he could have pushed the PM into the uncomfortable position of calling for other bankers to lose their titles. That possibly reflects a growing sense of unease, as voiced by Alistair Darling this morning, that one individual may have been unfairly singled out in a politically-motivated attack.
Instead, the Labour leader developed his theme of unfairness at the top of society, calling on the prime minister to implement the suggestions of the Walker review and ensure that banks have to disclose how many people they employ who earn over £1m a year.
The legislation to make this possible was passed under the last Labour government and with cross-party support, Miliband pointed out, why wouldn’t the PM enact it? Read more
It was no surprise that Ed Miliband led on the economy today, on the day that GDP figures showed a drop in output in the last quarter of last year.
The Labour leader’s questioning was more effective than usual. He has a new line that looks like it could pay off:
He and his chancellor are the byword for smug, self-satisfied complacency.
It certainly gives us all some relief from the previous ubiquitous epithet Labour applied to the prime minister and his party of “out of touch”. Read more
It was sensible of Ed Miliband to tackle the prime minister over unemployment at prime minister’s questions today. No matter what the coalition says about falling interest rates, if people keep losing their jobs, the government’s robust position in the polls (if not quite a lead) is not going to last very long.
Miliband has tried to recreate a narrative from the 1980s: that the callous Tories don’t care about people losing their jobs. It’s not quite working yet, partially because voters still believe the government is clearing up Labour’s economic mess and partially because the 1980s are a fading memory. At one point, the Labour leader even had to explain who he meant by one reference to Lord Young, the former Tory employment minister, who is back working at Number 10. Read more
This was a dangerous PMQs for Ed Miliband. The Christmas break has not been particularly good for the Labour leader, with criticism being fired at him from his own supposed “guru”, Maurice Glasman – and a more coded warning shot from his own front bench in the form of Jim Murphy.
His relaunch on Tuesday fared little better, as Jim mentioned in his post yesterday.
Miliband’s vulnerability was made clear when, on standing up to speak, he was given a bigger cheer by the Tory benches than his own. Read more
Ed Miliband started well at today’s PMQs, using David Cameron’s words from his 2011 New Year message to highlight the government’s failure to stop the rise in unemployment, which has hit a new 17-year high.
Miliband quotes the PM as saying: “What is uppermost in my mind is jobs,” before asking, “What went wrong?”
There then followed such a well-worn debate (“Unemployment is rising,” says Labour; “Here’s what we’re doing to tackle it,” say the Tories) that half the press gallery fell asleep during it. Read more