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Miliband uses PMQs to exploit Cameron's uncertain Commons majority - on banks today as on Leveson previously

By Paul Goodman
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The great Philip Cowley pointed out on Twitter this morning a weakness in my argument that David Cameron is in a worse situation than John Major: Mr Cameron, he said, has a majority four times the size of Mr Major's.  (He might also have added that Ed Miliband is no Tony Blair.)  My answer is that Professor Cowley is right...but Mr Cameron's majority is none the less not always reliable.

This Commons is already the most rebellious of any post-war one.  On Europe, I am not sure that a stable majority exists at all. The Liberal Democrats didn't back the Prime Minister over Jeremy Hunt, thus reducing the Government's majority sharply.  The mere threat of a revolt was enough to drive the recent U-turn on fuel duty.  And although Mr Miliband is no Blair, his threat of a Commons vote was a major contributor to the setting up of the Leveson inquiry.

The Labour leader was at it again today over the banking scandals, proposing a two-part public inquiry which would mirror Leveson's.   (He alluded to his role in setting up Leveson in his second question; he used all six of them on banking.)  He knows that now that the Lords have voted strongly against a public enquiry getting the Commons to vote for one is a bit of a long shot, especially since Liberal Democrat MPs are apparently likely to vote with the Government.

But he presumably hopes to exploit the hostility of the Treasury Select Committee to the Government's plan, and Andrew Tyrie's view that any inquiry must have broad support.  And in any event, his pitch is to make as big a noise about banking as possible - hence his call for that public inquiry, despite Labour's own responsibility for the scandal.  One view is that he is wasting his time on a Westminster Village issue that has little resonance with voters.

I'm not so sure, for three reasons.  First, taxpayer-funded bailouts and rigged interest rates aren't only of interest to "the Village".  Second, Miliband is trying to shift the terms of political debate, just as Margaret Thatcher began to do in Opposition: his attack on the bankers is part of his conception of "good" and "bad" businesses.  In doing so, he is breaking with the Blair/Cameron opposition model of "moving to the centre ground" by searching for "clause four moments".

And last, he is working away at Mr Cameron's big but unstable Commons majority.  It would thus be a mistake to try to find a winner or a loser from this PMQs.  Mr Miliband wanted to make a big gesture of doubtful utility and breathtaking chutzpah, given Labour's record on the City.*  So he made it.  Mr Cameron can't bear the thought of another Leveson enquiry.  So he opposed one.  We will see later whether there is any mileage in Mr Miliband's attempt to work away at the Government's Commons weaknesses.

* Ed Balls was uncharacteristically quiet today.  It's consequently not hard to see how Mr Cameron can get even with his most effective Commons sledger.  From now on, the Prime Minister will surely label him "the man who gave us the banking scandal".


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