Risible PMQs performance is no win for Cameron

The face is red but the heart is black: Cameron's strategy is to say one thing and do something entirely different.

The face is red but the heart is black: Cameron’s strategy is now one of false arguments and ignoring the questions put to him.

Was anybody else dismayed to see media commentator after media commentator blithely commenting that this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions was, for example, an “easy win” for David Cameron (George Eaton, New Statesman), with Guardian political correspondent Andrew Sparrow tweeting, “Verdict from the Twitter commentariat – Unanimous for Cameron”?

It offends this writer’s sense of Britishness and fair play. If Cameron won, he did so by evasion, false argument, and perverting the facts.

Let’s go through the leaders’ exchange together, using the BBC live blog and Hansard for reference.

The first thing mentioned by Ed Miliband was the Iraq Inquiry – he called for its findings to be published as soon as possible. Then he changed subject, pointing out that the Coalition government will be the first to leave office with living standards lower than when they came into power.

David Cameron did not answer the question but went back to Mr Miliband’s comment about the inquiry instead. He said he too wants to see the Iraq Inquiry published as soon as possible – but it would have been ready years ago if the previous Labour government had set the inquiry up sooner, as the Conservatives and others had wanted.

This not true. Labour’s position on it is that the inquiry was set up at the appropriate time – after hostilities in Iraq had ended. In any case, we are now in the sixth year since the inquiry was established (in November 2009); most of the delays have taken place under the Coalition Government led by David Cameron. The reason currently being given for the delay, by inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot, is that witnesses need an opportunity to respond to any criticisms of them that have been made.

This blog wishes to point out that Mr Cameron himself is also partly responsible for delays in this matter. The Guardian reported in November 2013: “The Cabinet Office is resisting requests from the Iraq inquiry… for ‘more than 130 records of conversations’ between Tony Blair, his successor, Gordon Brown, and then-US President George W Bush to be made public. In a letter to David Cameron, published on the inquiry’s website, the committee’s chairman, Sir John Chilcot, disclosed that ’25 notes from Mr Blair to President Bush’ and ‘some 200 cabinet-level discussions’ were also being withheld.

“The standoff between the inquiry and Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, has been going on for five months and has meant that the [process] in which politicians and officials are warned that they will be criticised in the report, is on hold. As a result, a date for the final publication of the report has yet to be agreed, more than four years after the inquiry started. ”

That’s a delay directly attributable to David Cameron and his government. It would have been more accurate if he had said the inquiry’s report would have been ready years ago if Mr Cameron himself had not done everything he could to hinder it.

Back to today: Ed Miliband noted that Mr Cameron made no mention of the economy in his reply, and pointed out that people are £1,600 a year worse off since 2010. According to the BBC blog: “David Cameron says Labour has no apology for not launching the Iraq Inquiry earlier – before launching into a defence of the coalition’s economic record. He says Mr Miliband is wrong about everything.”

In fact he raised the alleged drop in unemployment and rise in wages recorded by the ONS (and debunked on this blog earlier today). His mention of tax reductions as a defence against the “£1,600 a year worse off” claim is ridiculous as it shows how lightly his government has taken its self-described reason for being – reducing the deficit. This is not going to happen under a government that doesn’t want to take taxes.

Cameron’s claim that there is no cost of living crisis because inflation is at 0.5 per cent is a silly ‘excluded middle’ false argument; just because the headline level of inflation is low, that does not mean people are not struggling to make ends meet – especially when they have to deal with measures brought in by Cameron’s government like the Bedroom Tax, that have nothing to do with inflation and everything to do with Tory neoliberal ideology.

Mr Miliband stood his ground: Cameron has raised taxes on ordinary families, raised VAT, cut tax credits. Wages are down; taxes are up – and a report by the Joseph Rowntree foundation has shown that half of all families where one person is in full-time work cannot make ends meet at the end of the month.

“You can work hard and play by the rules, but in Cameron’s Britain you still cannot pay the bills—that is the reality,” he said – and it’s strong stuff.

Cameron’s response was feeble. He claimed that more than 30 million people are now in work – but we know that this is partly due to the rise in the population, and most of the jobs are zero-hours, part-time or temporary, meaning that Mr Miliband is right; families are struggling to pay the bills. His repeated reference to the ONS statistics – which were discredited within minutes of having been published, is risible. Cameron was making an ‘argument by selective observation’ – what he was saying was factually accurate, but he was deliberately failing to put all the facts before us.

The claim that people in work are seeing their pay rise by four per cent seems to be an outright lie. Even the ONS could only support a rise of 1.8 per cent.

“If we had listened to [Mr Miliband], none of these things would have happened,” blustered Cameron. “If we had listened to Labour, it would be more borrowing, more spending, more debt: all the things that got us into a mess in the first place.” How does he know that? He doesn’t. It’s another false argument – an ad hominem (attacking Mr Miliband, rather than his argument), also an ‘appeal to widespread belief’, as many people still seem to believe that Labour will borrow more and create more debt (despite repeated evidence that Labour will do nothing of the sort) and that the economy is safer with the Conservatives (even though their own rampant borrowing has nearly doubled the National Debt), and a non sequitur – it doesn’t follow that, if the Tories had listened to Labour, none of the favourable outcomes he listed would have happened.

Mention of borrowing prompted Mr Miliband to point out that the Coalition Government has failed on the deficit – accurately. According to his original preductions, Chancellor George Osborne should have reduced the deficit to around £37 billion per year by now – instead it stands between £90 billion and £100 billion.

Mr Miliband’s claim that executive pay has increased by 21 per cent in the last year alone, meaning the recovery is only for a few at the top, is also accurate. Spread among the workforce as a whole and coupled with the small pay rises they have received, the average may be 1.8 per cent – but most people aren’t enjoying any sudden increase in prosperity. Are you?

Cameron’s response: “The right honourable Gentleman criticises me on the deficit—he is the man who could not even remember the deficit.” Another ad hominem, and another non sequitur. What does Mr Miliband’s lapse of memory in a speech from last year have to do with today’s statistics?

Mr Miliband’s last question was about David Cameron’s decision not to take part in televised election debates if the Green Party is excluded. If he is so confident about the economy, why is he “chickening out”?

Again, Cameron did not even answer the question. Instead he quoted Christine LaGarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, in support of his claim that the UK economy is improving. That discussion was over. Why did he have nothing to say about the TV debates? It’s a simple change of subject but, again, it’s no argument against what Mr Milband was saying.

So let’s tot up the Prime Minister’s score – did he win or lose? Let’s see: Iraq inquiry – lose; economy – lose; employment – lose; wages – lose; deficit – lose; TV debates – lose.

The moral of the story: You don’t have to win any argument if enough people are willing to say you did.

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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  1. Andy January 21, 2015 at 9:30 pm - Reply

    One of Ed Millband’s better performances. I just wish that we could elevate ourselves from this Punch and Judy show and have better informed debates. Opinions are intractable and no one will concede anything.

    • Mike Sivier January 21, 2015 at 9:48 pm - Reply

      What do you think of his idea for a ‘People’s PMQs’, in which members of the public can ask the questions?

      • Andy January 21, 2015 at 10:39 pm - Reply

        Until we see exactly how this would be put into practice I have my reservations. Will it just be on a personal interaction or will it include social media in some way? We’ll have to wait and see.

      • aturtle05 January 22, 2015 at 10:35 am - Reply

        If a “People’s PMQs” came about, I fear for the Prime Minister. If Dave were to face them, he would be facing the people his government has harmed. He would be facing people that had properly researched an area of government concern unlike himself and would be able to refute any fake statistics that he used when he used them.

        • Mike Sivier January 22, 2015 at 11:38 am - Reply

          They’d have to phrase their questions very carefully, though – bear in mind that only the leader of the Opposition gets the right of reply in PMQs as it is normally, so members of the public wouldn’t have that right and would have to ensure that their question was set in a way that demanded the answer they wanted.

      • Joan Edington January 25, 2015 at 1:22 pm - Reply

        Andy. Nicola Sturgeon already has First Minister’s Questions sessions with the public on Facebook. I don’t see why something similar couldn’t be done for the UK. Something tells me that Cameron might not like it though.

  2. HomerJS January 21, 2015 at 9:36 pm - Reply

    Personally, I think that the PM’s performance should be measured in terms of the number of questions he actually answers.

    • Andy January 21, 2015 at 10:40 pm - Reply

      Hear, hear!

  3. Jane Jacques January 21, 2015 at 10:29 pm - Reply

    Agree entirely, Cameron was evasive, with dodgy stats. If you have struggled to cope and got into debt with a poorly paid job the figures are meaningless.

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