By David Talbot, London office
This has been a bruising week in Westminster. The Prime Minister’s campaign to deny Jean-Claude Juncker becoming president of the European Commission ended in glorious failure. Having fought an overtly aggressive campaign to stop Juncker, a contrite Cameron had to call the new President-designate of the European Commission on Wednesday. Like a lover scorned, both sides will claim it was all a big misunderstanding; Juncker has vowed to “address UK concerns” – Cameron has spluttered that he can “do business” with the Luxembourger. And the Labour leader Ed Miliband has once again been mauled by his own side, with the rhetorical flourish of being a “dead hand at the centre” added to the increasingly long list of ways to criticise the much-maligned Miliband. And amongst all this the Chancellor refused to answer a question from a seven year old over a simple maths equation; a bruising week indeed.
The fallout from the “Juncker affair” as it has been dubbed has seemingly done no harm to the Conservative party and the embattled Prime Minister. Quite the reverse, it would seem. The latest of weekly polling by the Tory tycoon, Lord Ashcroft, has seen the Conservatives overtake Labour by a slender margin. Despite Ed Miliband accusing Cameron of delivering “a master class in how to alienate your allies”, the poll put the Conservatives two points ahead of Labour.
In the Commons, Cameron was greeted by a guttural roar from his backbenchers over his intransigence towards Brussels. The febrile atmosphere on the Conservative divide was best summarised by Stephen O’Brien, MP for Eddisbury who quipped, in reference to German planes used during the war, that Britain had “seen off many Junkers before”.
But whilst the Prime Minister has emerged relatively unscathed from a decisive defeat on the European front the leader of the opposition has had problems of his own much closer to home. Criticism of him, much of it deeply personal, and of his office, has reached new levels. Jon Cruddas, Labour’s policy chief, has been caught on tape criticising the “dead hand at the centre”. Last week it was the ever-helpful Lord Mandelson warning that there was no “convincing and vivid narrative”. What these remarks, and many more like them, reflect is a growing mood of frustration on the Labour benches. So it was with good cheer that Unite the union, Labour’s largest financial backer, duly announced on Wednesday that it would support the party at the next general election.
In the midst of all this Westminster bubble tittle-tattle substantive issues have arisen this week. The broad brushes of the Conservative manifesto are emerging, with the Financial Times detailing that a focus on education, welfare and “British values” are set to take centre stage. The Finance Bill, the measure which puts the tax changes announced in the Budget into law, reached report stage on Tuesday. Labour tabled six amendments, indicating at once where they will fight the next general election, on keeping the 50p income tax rate and on opposing the changes to stamp duty, where they would use the resulting revenue to reverse the ‘Bedroom Tax’.
Away from Westminster, the Queen will be in the Fife dockyards today to commission the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, with the ceremony attended by current, past and perhaps future political behemoths in Cameron, Miliband, Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond – cue the political posturing. The prime minister has already delivered his version of the Bannockburn address urging the “silent majority” to speak out in the pending independence referendum. Such matters serve to remind the British political sphere that there are more pressing local matters, (crucial to the future of Westminster) than whether or not a hitherto unheard of European official has acquired a new job.
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