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Benefits cut an important dividing line through PMQs

By Peter Hoskin
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First of all, today’s PMQs was an extremely rowdy and red-faced affair — even more so than usual. Questions had to be shouted over the din. Ed Miliband called David Cameron “the boy from the Bullingdon Club”, to cheers from his own side. Mr Cameron suggested that the Labour leader had caught Ed Balls’s disease of “not being able to keep his mouth shut for five seconds”, to cheers from his. Mr Balls kept on waving a piece in the Prime Minister’s face. And so on.

But this doesn’t mean that the session was all heat, no light. To the contrary, what we saw was an argument that will, most likely, be one of the most significant of this Parliament and of the next election campaign. That argument was over benefits.

Mr Miliband set it up with his second question: how many of the people affected by last week’s cap on rising benefit spending are actually in work? His aim was to wheedle out of the Prime Minister an admission that the policy wouldn’t just hit the unemployed but also those “strivers,” as he called them, on in-work benefits. He strengthened that implied message with some forceful rhetoric (“It’s the cleaner who is cleaning the Chancellor’s office while the Chancellor’s curtains are still drawn”) and a chart from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggesting that working families are now £534 a year worse off.

To start off with, Mr Cameron’s answers were rather muddy. But then he warmed to a theme: that, yes, in-work benefits would be hit, but that a) this was necessary to deal with the deficit, and b) working people would also be compensated by cuts the income tax threshold and, eventually, by the Universal Credit, which the IFS table doesn’t account for. “His is the party of unlimited welfare,” he said, pointing in Mr Miliband’s direction. “A party that isn’t serious about controlling welfare isn’t serious about controlling the deficit either.”

It was in an answer to the new Labour backbencher Lucy Powell that Mr Cameron was at his clearest. The Coalition benches, he said, believe in cutting the taxes of those in work, rather than taking that money off them and redistributing it back through an unwieldy tax credits system. “That's what we're doing and there'll be more of it to come,” he finished.

It’s hard to say which leader really won this exchange, and not just because both were punchy and well-briefed, but also because this was a dividing line plain and simple: a point of principle that allows no concession to the other side. Which side of the argument has triumphed will emerge more clearly after the next election, rather than on a frozen December afternoon in 2012.

There was time remaining for questions from, among others, Dennis Skinner (on the Communications  Data Bill), Bill Cash (on Europe) and Andrew Tyrie (on “secret courts”) — but, really, all the energy of this PMQs, as well as the main answers of interest, were expended on benefits. And then, thankfully, the House quietened down for David Cameron’s statement on the murder of Pat Finucane. We shall have the text or video of that statement up on the site shortly.


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