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Miliband targets Osborne (and Osborne’s fiscal policy, natch) in PMQs

By Peter Hoskin
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Watching the exchange between David Cameron and Ed Miliband in PMQs today, you’d be forgiven for thinking: haven’t we been here before? On one side, we had the Labour leader attacking the Coalition for its fiscal policy and the effect, he claims, it is having on growth. On the other, the Prime Minister defending the Coalition’s economic record and slamming Labour for both their legacy and their free-borrowing attitude since. Almost all of the reference points were familiar: “what a complacent answer”, “one million jobs in the private sector”, “borrowing £212 billion more than he anticipated”, “the deficit is down by a quarter,” and so on and so on. It was difficult to stay tuned in.   

Yet there were some small differences from what has gone before. For starters, both Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband managed to distil their attacks into new sound-bites—“Labour has a three point plan: more spending, more borrowing, more debt,” and “The Prime Minister promises a better tomorrow, and tomorrow never comes,” respectively—that I expect we’ll hear again. And the Labour leader could also lean on last week’s growth figures, as well as the false claim about debt made in the Tories’ recent party political broadcast. These factors made Mr Cameron look relatively uncomfortable overall, and probably shaded the contest for Mr Miliband.

But the most striking element of the leaders’ exchange was the time devoted by Mr Miliband to attacking George Osborne, directly and personally. We’re used to some of the lines he deployed—“part-time Chancellor”, etc.—but this was much more concerted than usual. “Perhaps the part-time Chancellor should spend more time worrying about the economy,” began the Labour leader, “and less time worrying about diverting high speed rail routes away from his constituency” – and he would have gone on had the Speaker not then interrupted him. The Prime Minister was able to deny the story in question, but you sense that Labour are targeting Mr Osborne for a reason and may keep on doing it.  

As for the backbench questions, a number of themes emerged:

  • Andrew Griffiths urged the PM to scrap the beer duty escalator, and received a response that wasn’t entirely unfavourable. “The government has plans…” hinted Mr Cameron, which may intrigue those backbenchers currently pushing for a “cost of living Budget”.
  • Richard Drax and Adrian Sanders, a Tory and a Lib Dem, asked questions about cuts to rescue services – specifically, to the coast guard and to “search and rescue”. It was a reminder that even Coalition MPs are concerned about the impact of fiscal tightening on the business end of the public sector.
  • And, as in the past few weeks, more than one Labour MP frothed about Mr Cameron’s “failure to visit a food bank”. The PM answered, to the first, that he has plans to do just that – and soon. When the second asked exactly the same question it looked… well, a little peculiar.

Mr Cameron seemed to grow in confidence as the session went on. When Labour’s Alex Cunningham asked the funniest question of the day—“Is it true that traces of stalking horse have been found in the Conservative Party food chain?”—it unsteadied the Prime Minister for a second, before he came back with a sharp response: “The Conservative Party has always stood up for people who want to work hard and get on. And I'm glad the people behind me take that very seriously indeed.”

And then Mr Cameron ended with a bit of fire. When George Galloway asked why the Government is attacking the Islamists in Mali but supporting the “equally bloodthirsty jihadists” in Syria, he replied curtly: “Wherever there is a brutal Arab dictator in the world, he'll have the support of the honourable member.” And then there was a warning for those who voted down the border reforms: “Those who voted in favour of existing constituency boundaries—that are both costly and unfair—they will have to justify that to their constituents.”

And with that, the PM’s off to Algeria.


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