Today’s Prime Minister’s Questions was one of the most tetchy in memory. Despite a veneer of civility it was clear that the relationship between David Cameron and Ed Miliband has deteriorated in the wake of the Government’s defeat last Thursday.
Yet while it was MPs on the Labour backbenchers cheering when the Government lost its motion, polling suggests that Ed Miliband has not gained a clear victory in the public’s mind. This is perhaps because despite being identified with opposition to military engagement in Syria, Ed Miliband’s actual position is far less defined. Miliband’s approval rating might have improved by 9 points to -39% – while David Cameron’s saw no change at -19% – but at the same time polling also indicates that the public believes Cameron showed stronger leadership (39%) than Miliband (28%).
In truth it’s almost certain that neither Cameron nor Miliband expected the Government to lose a vote on the principle of action. In the aftermath Cameron pulled quite decisively away from the UK using any military force in Syria – a move that has reportedly upset some members in his cabinet, including Education Secretary Michael Gove – and has subsequently sought to put some of the moral responsibility for the UK’s commitment not to engage militarily on Miliband’s shoulders.
Yet perhaps the most lasting legacy will be a shift in the relationship between Parliament and the Executive. Many have noted the spectre of Iraq hanging over Parliament last Thursday, but the real issue wasn’t that some MPs voted in favour of action they later regretted that 2003 day, but that most MPs felt that whatever their vote it made no difference. The brutal reality for Parliament was that Britain was going to war either way. But after last week’s vote it’s not clear how a Prime Minister – whether Cameron or, after 2015, his opponent Ed Miliband – might now go to war without Parliament’s prior approval. The impact that will have on Britain’s foreign policy is yet to become apparent.
‘Flatlining’ dies on the table
Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has tacitly acknowledged that, with growth returning to the UK economy, Labour’s argument that the Government’s ‘Plan A’ has caused the economy to ‘flatline’ is becoming outdated and won’t have the desired impact come 2015. Despite using his Guardian article to attack the strength of the recovery, and to pursue Labour’s new favourite attack on cost of living, it’s clear that Balls has accepted that the return to recession that he loudly predicted has not materialised.
The shift comes less than three weeks before Labour’s party conference, where Ed Balls – just over 18 months away from a general election – will be under huge pressure to define more clearly what Labour’s alternative is to Conservative austerity. The need to firm up policy across the board is well-understood by the Labour leadership, and Miliband will be hoping that the party’s policy review, led by Jon Cruddas MP, provides solutions palatable to both Labour activists, voters, and draws clear dividing lines with Government policy.