By Matthew Barrett
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Before PMQs, Ed Miliband had two obvious choices. He could go for the easy-ish attack, and criticise the 0.5% GDP growth announced yesterday as being insufficiently vigorous and a good reason to switch to a Keynesian "Plan B". I noted at the time that if Miliband chose this line of questioning, the Prime Minister would herald the 0.5% growth as a sign the Coalition is on track to reduce the deficit, and we mustn't deviate from the plan, and so on.
Miliband's second, and more interesting choice was to focus on the Eurozone crisis. Perhaps he could appear statesmanlike, and try and win some economic credibility. The Prime Minister bashed him last week for "Labour's… weaknesses on EU policy". This week could have been a chance for Miliband to show strength on the issue.
As it turned out, he didn't pursue the Eurozone route, and went with GDP figures. Mr Miliband asked if the figures point to a successful economic policy. Mr Cameron said the figures were "better than many people expected" and condemned Miliband for not being more cheerful about the news. Cameron then, Gordon Brown-like, said a "global storm" was to blame for perilous economic conditions. Mr Miliband attacked the Prime Minister for not taking responsiblity for his government's economic actions.
Mr Miliband then asked a question about the "Business Growth Fund" scheme, which has invested in a mere two businesses. Mr Miliband asked what the Prime Minister will do to get the scheme working. Mr Cameron replied that Miliband had failed to regulate the banking sector during Labour's period in government. Mr Cameron then claimed there was "more bank lending under this government". Mr Miliband replied it was a "totally hopeless answer", and bashed the government for having "not a clue what is happening to their own scheme".
Mr Miliband then moved on to directors' pay, asking the "public want to know – what is he going to do about it?" Mr Cameron replied by highlighting the government's bank levy and crackdowns on non-doms as measures to squeeze the most privileged. Mr Cameron then said "the Archbishop of Canterbury speaks for the whole country when he says … the people at the top of society are not showing signs of responsibility". Cameron continued that "this government is consulting on proper powers" for boardroom transparency and shareholder power. He then asked what Labour did to tackle the problem. The introduction of the 50p tax rate, replied Miliband.
Mr Miliband said the Prime Minister "says we're all in it together, but he lets the top 1% get away with it while the other 99% see their living standards squeezed and lose their jobs" – the best soundbite of the session. Mr Cameron condemned Labour for not regulating the banks during their time in office.
Some notes on backbench questions:
- Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) asked about current public sector pension negotiations. Mr Cameron said the Labour frontbench was silent, and condemned a Shadow Education Minister for "actively encouraging strikes"
- David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) asked the Prime Minister to reassure public sector pension reforms will allow public services to continue to a high standard. Mr Cameron called the reforms "a fair set of changes, the less well-off are really protected, the low-paid in the public sector won't have to pay the increased contributions, and I think, frankly, the whole House of Commons should get behind it instead of playing with strike action like the party opposite"
- Alistair Darling (Edinburgh South West) asked whether the Prime Minister would try and persuade fellow G20 heads to give some details of the new European rescue package. Mr Cameron replied that "some progress was made" at the European Council meeting, and there needs to be a "proper firewall" around Greece's debt
- Philip Hollobone (Kettering) said the government's projections showed Britain's population would grow to 70 million by 2027. Will the Prime Minister commit to stemming immigration, especially foreign nationals who stay having arrived on a work visa? Mr Cameron said "proper immigration and welfare reform are two sides of the same coin", and said the government is cracking down on bogus student immigration, and getting Britons back into work
- Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) asked for "a personal assurance" that power would shift from boardrooms to shareholders. Mr Cameron said the government is committed to such an idea, before heralding transparency and then condemning old boys networks in Britain's boardrooms
- Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) asked for the Prime Minister to reconsider the Strategic Defence Review. The Prime Minister replied that "we had no defence review for ten years, and now they want two in one go. It's absolutely typical of the opportunism of the party opposite".
- During a question from Guy Opperman (Hexham) on schools funding, the Prime Minister bashed Ed Balls for "being wrong even when he's sitting down. He talks even more rubbish when he's standing up". Laughs and jeers ensued. Mr Speaker said "some people are going to burst they're getting so excited. Bit of shame. Bit of a problem for them"
- Caroline Lucas asked the Prime Minister to commit to a Robin Hood Tax. The Prime Minister replied that there is "widespread public support for such a tax", but it must be adopted on a global basis.
- Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) was called and condemned the "increasingly maniacal gestures of the Shadow Chancellor". "It takes the Father of the House to bring the wisdom to the table", the Prime Minister replied. While answering the question, Ed Balls appeared to be making a "flat-line" hand gesture. Mr Cameron called this a "questionable salute".