Quick-witted Cameron avoids a mauling over AAA rating loss
Prime Minister's Questions sketch by London Editor Graeme Demianyk.
Westminster this week has been gripped by the Lord Rennard scandal and allegations – strongly denied – of sexual harassment. The loss of the UK’s prized AAA credit rating has almost been a footnote.
It’s an open goal for Labour, given the respect Chancellor George Osborne afforded the AAA grading: in short, the austerity programme’s reason for being has been to protect the much-vaunted status. The Chancellor’s credibility, therefore, has taken a bruising.
And yet, thanks to a dose of quick wit, the Prime Minister survived his weekly half-hour grilling. He may, though, want to get a better joke writer.
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“Three years ago, the Prime Minister said that ‘the first priority of any government has got to be keeping UK plc’s credit rating. That’s got to come first. It’s the only responsible thing to do’,” began Labour leader Ed Miliband. “How is that going?”
This is the interesting bit. The coalition Government has this week argued that the dent in Britain’s credit rating crown justifies spending cuts, rather than condemns them, If nothing else, you have to admire the hubris.
Mr Cameron’s riposte: “The decision by the ratings agency is a reminder of the debt and the problem that this country faces and, frankly, it is a warning to anyone who thinks we can walk away from it.”
He added: “I note that it is still his policy to address excessive borrowing by borrowing more.”
It’s a stinging rebuke. The Tory attack at the election will be whether voters trust Labour on the economy if they repeat mistakes of the past. But still. That triple-A rating was hallowed.
Mr Miliband again: “The Prime Minister used to say that our credit rating was ‘the mark of trust in our economy’ and that it was ‘right up-front and centre’ in ‘our new economic model’.
“His manifesto that he published at the General Election said that safeguarding Britain’s credit rating was the very first of his ‘Benchmarks for Britain’, against which ‘the British people… can judge the economic success or failure of the next government’.
“So does the Prime Minister accept that, by the first test he set himself, he has failed?”
You know the answer to that one, not that a direct response was forthcoming. Mr Cameron’s rejoinder: “If there is a problem of excessive borrowing, why is it that his policy is to borrow more? That is the question that he simply has to answer.”
Labour’s anti-austerity approach does have a flaw: if there is an uptick in the economy before the 2015 election, voters may feel the coalition plan has worked. For now, though, it would be folly not to underscore the shortcomings of the policy.
Mr Miliband again: “We have one million young people out of work, the deficit is rising not falling and the economy is flatlining. What further evidence does he need that his plan is just not working?”
But here’s where Mr Cameron scored big.
Boxing clever, he chortled back: “Let’s examine the fact that The New Statesman – the in-house magazine of the Labour party – says this: ‘His critique of the Government’s strategy will never win back public trust, his proposals for the economy will never convince, his credibility problem will only become magnified as the general election approaches’.
“That’s not Conservative Central Office, that’s The New Statesman!”
A bit naughty, that. The piece was in fact an open letter published in The New Statesman, rather than the magazine’s view of the world, and was written by Anthony Seldon – biographer of Tony Blair and John Major. The jibe was aimed at Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls rather than, as Mr Cameron suggested, Mr Miliband.
“He’s scraping the barrel by quoting The New Statesman!,” Mr Miliband hit back, taking a Zippo lighter to a sturdy bridge.
Mr Cameron couldn’t believe his luck: “He says The New Statesman is scraping the barrel – it was the only newspaper that endorsed his leadership!”
Not strictly true. One colleague pointed out the Doncaster Free Press was four-square behind their local MP’s bid. But facts are fairly elastic at PMQs.
Less successful was the Prime Minister’s return to the claim that Britain has “a downgraded Government, a downgraded Chancellor and a downgraded Prime Minister”.
Mr Cameron: “In this Oscar week, perhaps the best we can say is that Daniel Day-Lewis was utterly convincing as Abraham Lincoln, and he is utterly convincing as Gordon Brown: more borrowing, more spending, more debt.”
No gongs for that one.