By Peter Hoskin
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Unsurprisingly, two subjects simmered to the fore in PMQs
today: the Work Programme and tomorrow’s Leveson Report. The first of these
occupied most of the exchange between David Cameron and Ed Miliband. The second
emerged in backbench questions.
So, let’s start with the leaders’ exchange, shall we? This
promised to be rocky ground for Mr Cameron, given just
how underwhelming yesterday’s welfare-to-work statistics were — and that’s
how it seemed at first. Ed Miliband began by quoting David Cameron, speaking
last year, to the effect that the Work Programme is the "biggest, boldest
effort to get people off benefits and into work that this country has ever
seen." You could almost sense the embarrassment rising, like a heat haze,
from the Coalition benches.
But Mr Cameron rescued the position in double-quick time.
Helped by an error from Mr Miliband — who said that only two per cent of
participants got a job, whereas actually that’s the figure for those who held a
job for over six months — he clearly and methodically went through the numbers,
listing some of the more encouraging aspects of the Work Programme. And then he
added a sting. “The Work Programme is already helping thousands of people,” he
said, quoting the CBI, before adding a line of his own: “These are people that
Labour left on the scrapheap.”
Admittedly, Mr Cameron was less clear when it came to the “long-term
unemployment” figures that Mr Miliband pushed him for — rather than ‘fessing up
to how they’ve risen, he preferred to dwell on the positive overall employment
statistics. But, by this point, the PM was placing more weight on his front
foot. As soon as he could, he made sure to mention Labour’s continued
opposition to a benefits cap, describing them as “the party of something for
nothing”. This line also came up later in the session, in response to a
backbench question, which suggests just how eager the Tory leadership are to
make this stick.
The end of the leaders’ exchange was a bit messy, with both men
launching into pre-prepared lists. (Miliband: “The Prime Minister has failed,
the Government has failed…” etc; Cameron: “We’re the Government that did x, we’re
the Government that did y…” etc). But Mr Cameron had already defused a tricky
encounter, and was probably the victor as a result.
As for the Leveson report, the Prime Minister consistently
emphasised a few points in response to questions from backbenchers including Henry
Smith, Liam Fox and Philip Davies. The first was that “the status quo is
unacceptable and needs to change”. The second was that the victims of phone-hacking
— such as the family of Milly Dowler — should be foremost in politicians’ minds.
And the third was that “there needs to be an independent regulatory system
which can deliver”.
But, beyond that, there were some more specific, individual
points made. One was Mr Cameron’s offer to “work across party lines on this
issue,” and to speak to the other leaders. The other was his response to Liam
Fox’s argument that, rather than restricting the press, we should concentrate
on proper redress whenever the press oversteps its bounds — particularly to
ensure that “justice isn't only available to rich and famous”. Mr Cameron only
seemed to agree up to a point, saying that he’d prefer a tougher regulatory
system precisely so that victims don’t have to refer their cases to the courts.
There were other subjects on display. Cheryl Gillan asked whether
those facing displacement by HS2 would be compensated “fairly and generously” —
to which David Cameron responded sympathetically. Various Labour MPs asked about tax avoidance
and lower rates for the well-off — to which he responded by inquiring, "What did
you do in 13 years of power?" But, like I say, it was the Work Programme and
Leveson that dominated. And tomorrow will be dominated by only one of them.