For my first ever piece on Prime Minister’s Questions, I rather hoped for a few more fireworks than we actually saw. David Cameron’s infamous red face never made an appearance, and Ed Miliband was relatively quiet, given his ability to hammer points home on occasion rather extensively. It seems all too easy to conclude that Cameron won this week’s war of words; Miliband was oddly silent on the Police Crime Commissioner elections and didn’t attempt to defend the rather scathing attack Cameron delivered on Miliband’s identity crisis this week (Thatcher, Disraeli, eurosceptic and europhile? Miliband has been a busy man!)
The PCC elections were an interesting debacle. Cameron defended the ‘farcical’ PCC elections as an opportunity to get ‘a good deal from the police’. Later, Cameron mocked Lord Prescott for saying that the PCC elections were the nation’s way of passing judgement on the government. Cameron said Humberside ‘spoke for the whole nation’ when Prescott then went on to lose to Conservative Matthew Grove on second preference votes. Rightfully so, Miliband should have thought twice before mentioning the Conservative Corby defeat, given that the Labour Prescott defeat was more striking – not a very well thought-out retort from Miliband.
On the PCC elections, something that has been readily identified by the media is their politicisation – how something as vital as our ability to feel safe and protected by our constabulary has been reduced to a judgement on the incumbent government. Prescott was undoubtedly correct in that PCC elections were in some cases used, or not used, to demonstrate dissatisfaction with the Government or Opposition. Low turnout rates are often seen in other electoral areas (by-elections in particular) but in the Police Crime Commissioner elections, it was seen as damning indictment of the government and the proposal. Does this not go on to show that PCC elections cannot be seen as good way of getting ‘a good deal’ when it comes to the population’s safety? Determining who will deal with crime on a party political basis cannot be good for anybody – only elections done on the merit of the candidate can possibly achieve this. Yet, Cameron was left standing because nobody delivered any blows to Cameron’s incredibly idealistic view of what PCC elections would do – a significant failing on the Opposition’s part.
Interestingly, both Miliband and Cameron seemed to be in agreement on the present Israel-Palestine situation, both acceding that confidence in a two-state solution was dwindling, and that Palestine and Israel must work harder at a peace process. Miliband asked how Cameron would vote should Palestine bring this up at the UN, with Cameron effectively saying it was so far undetermined however he hoped that Palestine would not take the matter to the UN. Whether this is feasible is debatable, but Miliband (as became the trend, really) didn’t take issue with Cameron’s response.
The economy came up twice from Conservative MPs who used metrics on the interest rates being at a record-low and our continued AAA status to indicate that perception was that our economy was on the right track. Cameron agreed that these market factors showed that there was confidence in the British government to enact the policies that are required to resolve the economic situation. Cameron was handed this point on a plate, and he failed to make much of it. What he should have responded with was firm agreement, as well as making more of the return to growth and emergence from recession, exceeding most people’s expectations. This really was a mallet to knock the Opposition over the head with, and yet in reality he delivered no more than a slap – reminding Labour that the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, had said interest rates would determine success. When it comes to the economy, the Coalition has demonstrated that their policies are paying off, but due to the time lag, Labour have used the economy as a weapon most weeks to show the Coalition don’t know what they’re doing. They need to make more of it when the time arises to narrow the gap between them and Labour by persuading the population of their superior economic management. They’re not going to do this if Cameron can’t deliver convincingly and thoroughly at the despatch box when the issue comes up.
One thing Cameron did very well was to remind the Commons that it was Labour who gave away ‘almost half of the rebate’ on the budget that Margaret Thatcher had negotiated for Britain from the European Union. This was in a response to Conservative MP, David Nuttall, who requested that the Government confirm it will not give away any more. It would be worth noting here that Herman Van Rompuy, EU President, has already proposed a capping of payments that would lead to a reduction in Britain’s rebate. If Cameron is unsuccessful, which is looking ever more likely, Miliband has his own knock-out blow ready and lined up for a future PMQs. Given the criticism of Cameron’s eurosceptic credentials by his own party, it’s possible that the effects of losing some of the rebate would do Cameron more harm than it ever did Tony Blair. Given that Miliband is trying to pressurise Cameron into ensuring that the budget is not increased, it seems rather hypocritical of Labour – then again, Miliband (and Balls, especially) have form for not recognising the errors of past Labour administrations.
Cameron is, however, to be commended for his response on the Church of England women bishops fiasco. Given the House of Bishops voted overwhelmingly in favour of women bishops (44 for, 1 against, 2 abstentions), and that 42 out of 44 dioceses had approved the issue, AND the population generally supports the measure, it was nothing short of shocking that Cameron did not pledge to interfere and make women bishops a reality. Government-sceptics, liberals and libertarians everywhere can rejoice in Cameron’s statement that we have to respect the church and its processes as an individual institution, whilst ‘prodding’ it in the direction we would like it to go in. He couldn’t have been more spot on. It’s down to the Government and the population to be vocal about what they want, but the Government can have no right in forcing views onto the Church. I’m left wondering how a Labour government under Miliband would have answered on the subject – it doesn’t bear thinking about.
Finally, and to my mind, very importantly, Alasdair McDonnell, SDLP Leader in Northern Ireland asked the Prime Minister if more events can be held in Northern Ireland. Next week’s G8 summit will be held in the Lough Erne Resort in NI, and Cameron said he would be happy to look into extending the number of instances where Northern Ireland is chosen to host British functions. I was personally very pleased to hear this; as someone who was suitably aggrieved at ‘Team GB’ and her non-inclusion of Northern Ireland during London 2012 I’m glad to hear that more will be done in Northern Ireland. But it’s taken too long. As was stated right at the beginning of PMQs, a proper road between Scotland and England is needed – symbolic of the lack of coherence and unity between the member countries. The Government needs to allow for greater inclusion of member states, not just England, in our political and Parliamentary procedures. How can we ever convince Britain that Britain and not independence is the way forward without this inclusion? I hope McDonnell puts more pressure on the Government on this – it’s about time the Government showed how deep its commitment to the Union goes. It’s easy to say the right things, but for independence not to contribute to the general ‘omnishambles’ of Cameron’s government, with its U-turns, and about-turns, its pasty taxes, its five-a-side football tax and so on and so forth, his Government needs to be known for doing the right things too.
Cameron might have come out today’s winner, but a substantial amount of that was simply because Miliband didn’t fight hard enough. He needs to up his game and his performance, because Cameron didn’t have to work very hard to come out on top this week.