With only two more to go, this week’s PMQs saw a fiery clash that nevertheless failed to impress our panel. This weeks line-up included a début review from Pagefield Diplomat Partner, Florence Quirici.
As expected, Ed Miliband brought up the TV debates during today’s PMQs, while the Prime Minister focused on Labour’s probable inability to win the election without the SNP. Given that polls indicate that voters are unlikely to punish the Prime Minister for refusing to take part in a two-way debate, shouldn’t the Labour Leader have focused on more pressing issues facing the economy and the country? The Prime Minister did little to raise the level of the exchange, calling the Labour leader a chicken, and “weak and despicable” twice. PMQs is an opportunity for MPs to hold their Prime Minister to account but the exercise was a little light on real content this week.
Another week, another wasted session of Prime Minister’s Questions. For the session which supposedly offers the public a chance to see their leader held to account, PMQs is ironically lacking in public who watch it, and political accountability in terms of questions answered. ‘Sound-bites are the death of modern politics…’ etc. is a now-hackneyed line of argument, but they really are when Cameron announces that his Government is investing in defence and security on the day that he tries to finagle the intelligence budget into the defence allocation in order to fudge another hugely important spending decision – keeping the defence budget at 2% of GDP as mandated by Britain’s NATO membership.
This sleight-of-hand, built on the a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of intelligence in the policy process, is another example of Cameron’s disingenuous position on defence and security. His press office today highlighted a real terms increase in the equipment plan, as if this is a fair substitute for the most significant defence cuts in a generation. Unfortunately, as a man who seems to largely determine policy and ideology based on the prevailing wind, the Prime Minister is unlikely to make a real commitment to even the minimum 2% figure until another major party does, and UKIP is currently the only party offering that. With friends like these…
We should also take a moment, I suppose, to have a look at the shouty to-and-fro of badly written messaging which occurred between the Prime Minister and his opposite number. Ed decided to go on the debates…again, and he really did seem to be pushing his luck. Polling has suggested that the public just isn’t that bothered by Dave’s decision to avoid a head-to-head debate, and the PM seemed unphased by this line of questioning. Dave did a decent job of parrying the attack, pointing out that sticking with the debates suggested there was little else for Ed to talk about, but in the process stooped to describing Miliband as ‘despicable’, sending the ‘Jacob Rees-Mogg un-parliamentary language alarm’ into paroxysms. Dave should have known that he didn’t need to get nasty to ‘win’ today’s exchange.
Today’s PMQs was an unusually mixed bag: predictable yet with some surprises; the normal evasive answers coupled with some much-less-common insults; and moments of clarity undermined by killer moments that were clearly missed. Although it was always likely that Miliband would focus on the TV debates (or lack of them), it was a surprise how little attention Labour paid to the on-going debate about keeping Britain’s defence spending at 2% of GDP. This was all the more astonishing considering Ed Ball’s bold pledge (£) on Monday that Labour would go “nowhere near the huge scale of defence cuts you are going to see under the Conservatives”.
With defence traditionally one of the Conservatives strongest areas, the Tories facing a growing backbench rebellion on the matter (that will no doubt be compounded by today’s suggestion (£) that the PM might use questionable accounting to disguise the drop in defence spending), not to mention several statements by senior American officials questioning the UK’s defence cuts – it seemed a missed opportunity for Miliband not to ask a single question about it. Instead, he left it to (the usually peerless) Stella Creasy who uncharacteristically managed to fluff her lines, taking much of the sting out of an otherwise tricky point.
This to me confirms a lot about Miliband, much of which was apparent from his oft-described ‘35%’ strategy. Rather than trumpet a bold, centrist and unexpected move that would appeal to floating voters (which were so key to Blair’s successes), Miliband instead opted to major on an attack that will predominantly appeal to those who are already on-side. As with many of the fights that he has picked – whilst intended to show a principled man who will fight for what he believes – all that it reveals is Miliband’s lack of imagination and an almost total inability to move out of his comfort zone.
Despite polling this morning suggesting that the public are finally starting to take note and look less favourably on Cameron’s debate ‘demands’ – no doubt encouraging Miliband and Co to keep up the attack – it speaks volumes to me that 3 weeks before the General Election campaign kicks off, Labour feel their best hopes are to be found in criticising the arguably ‘superficial’ debates instead of offering clear policies and a differing approach. h This is despite ‘superficiality’ being something Miliband wanted to stay clear of.
Cameron, to be fair, did not perform particularly well either. It was disingenuous and rude of him to call Miliband “despicable” because Miliband “will end up crawling to power clinging on Alex Salmond’s coat-tails”, not least because much the same charge could be levelled at the Coalition’s current agreement. He also came across as over-confident bordering on arrogant – likely emboldened by the Conservatives recent lead in the polls – which is an almost cardinal sin for a Tory who is already seen as out-of-touch. No-wonder he doesn’t want to debate Miliband.