These days, Ed Miliband is getting a lot of advice on how to deal with Prime Minister’s Questions. A leaked memo advised him to “get to your feet looking as though you are seizing on something new”, and to ensure that he has a “cheer line” so his speech can be “clipped by the broadcasters”.
David Cameron, of course, reminded Ed Miliband of this advice today. But the best advice came in the form of an example of excellent questioning by Bob Russell, Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester.
In the last question today, Bob referred to the “fun and games” that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition had earlier on the subject of the housing benefit cuts. He said that, as children may end up homeless, this is no laughing matter, and did the PM agree about the seriousness of the cuts? He said that he thought that there would be unintended consequences from the proposed measures and that the cost of putting up families in B&B is greater than the cost of housing benefit.
A powerful point, as usual from our friend from Colchester. The Prime Minister replied that he agreed about the great seriousness of the matter. But he repeated what he said earlier — that the £20,000 per annum cap for rent for families is correct. Mr Cameron said this is about fairness, and that people in Colchester, Doncaster and West Oxfordshire couldn’t imagine living in a place which costs more than £20,000 a year to rent.
I note that David Cameron did not include London in his list. Perhaps this indicates that there is a bit of a rethink going on behind the scenes about the cap for London, and perhaps other cities. It is not fair or sensible to move families out of London where they are established in the community, with children attending local schools, and force them into bed-and-breakfast accommodation in places like Reading and Luton. It costs more financially, I would guess, and certainly the human cost is anything but fair. It is social engineering at its most insane.
Somehow, Bob Russell managed to convey the gravity of the government’s proposals in one question, whereas Ed Miliband’s six questions on the same topic tended towards music hall knockabout.
Mr Miliband started by asking whether all aspects of the housing benefit changes are “fixed”, noting Iain Duncan-Smith’s statement that the Coalition Government is “open to suggestions”. After the Prime Minister twice said that the Government is “going ahead with the proposals”, Mr Miliband asked Mr Cameron if he thought the 10% cut, after a year of job seeking, is fair. Mr Cameron went on about “difficult choices”, and that the current measures can amount to a “significant disincentive” to work.
The Labour leader commented that, with that reply, the Prime Minister had “dug himself in” on the 10% cut after a year. He then asked what advice Mr Cameron had for those families impacted by this cut, about how to make ends meet. The Priem Minister replied that there would be more programmes to help people back into work. He mentioned that, in London, the cut impacted 13,000 people a year — but that there are more than 30,000 job vacancies a month in London.
Mr Miliband then said that the Coalition is about to make 500,000 people redundant. This didn’t get challenged, but it ought to be. A four-year programme of 450,000 positions being ended, a headcount reduction, is not the same as making 500,000 people redundant. The latter description does not take into account vacant positions not filled, and tends to underplay voluntary redundancies. Anyway, Mr Miliband mentioned research saying that 82,000 people will lose their homes because of the Government’s changes. He then asked Mr Cameron how many people he thinks will lose their homes? A good point.
The Prime Minister just repeated his statement about £20,000 a year rent, adding that there is “no reason anyone should leave their home”. Really? That one will come back to haunt him.
Then came the last statements and the musical hall. Mr Miliband referred to “Glum” (Simon Hughes) and “Glummer” (Nick Clegg). He repeated Simon Hughes’s statement that some aspects of the housing benefit changes are “harsh and draconian” and said, to great Labour merriment, that “it is no surprise that Nick Clegg is back on the fags” (which I don’t think he is – unless he’s become marooned on a desert island since the weekend).
Mr Cameron then ended the routine (for that is what it was) by reading out quotes from the leaked memo, mentioned above. He said that Mr Miliband had a plan for PMQs (which I am not sure he has yet, mind you) but “no plan for the country”.
One little fact that emerged from later questioning. The Conservative MP for Tamworth, Christopher Pincher, asked his party leader to congratulate the chief executive of Ocado. Mr Cameron said he would, adding: “I am one of their customers”. Intriguing. Ocado is the online wing of Waitrose. So the Prime Minister still shops at Waitrose. But the Deputy Prime Minister famously said a couple pf years ago that, owing to the credit crunch, he and Miriam had given up Ocado’s, and were going to Sainsburys instead. So unless Chez Clegg have recently returned to their old habits, it’s Waitrose for the PM and Sainsbury’s for the DPM. A fascinating, if not in the least significant, piece of retail trivia coming out of today’s PMQs.
Is David Blunkett bonkers? He wants a Yorkshire parliament. Indeed, a “White Rose Parliament” as he called it. He didn’t seem to mention this when he was in power for the best part of 13 years.
Tessa Munt, Liberal Democrat MP for Wells, highlighted the fact that 420 people a year in Somerset die owing to the cold or poor housing. She asked Mr Cameron to support the work of a charity which encourages those who do not need their cold weather payments to give their payment to those who are less fortunate.
The Scottish Natonal Party’s Angus Robertson asked about the threat to RAF Lossiemouth which would result in the “biggest loss of Scottish jobs since the manufacturing closures in the 1980s”. The Prime Minister replied , rather flippantly, that if Scotland became independent they wouldn’t be flying planes in Scotland -– “they’d be flying by the seat of their pants”. Very funny. In fairness, he did also mention that two aircraft carriers will be built in Scotland.
The Prime Minister unequivocally ruled out any airport plans for the Thames Estuary, Medway and Kent. You could virtually hear Boris sobbing quietly in his glass testicle.
Labour MP Sharon Hodgson said that the recent announcements on the Child Trust Fund and the Help in Pregnancy scheme amounted to an attack on women and children. She said that Labour would make choices, “but different choices”, mentioning their plan to tax bankers more. Mr Cameron replied that Labour has made absolutely no choices, and that they had 13 years to introduce a bank levy, but didn’t, while the Coalition Government introduced one within six months. An interesting one, that. Imagine if Labour had introduced a bank levy in 1997. I doubt whether we would have heard the last of the Tories’ condemnation.
The government made much of the latest, unexpectedly high, economic growth figures and the fact that Standard and Poor have recently upgraded the UK to “stable”.
Yes, it’s great that the economy is recovering … just in time for the CSR to mess it all up again.
* Paul Walter blogs at Liberal Burblings.