It was cynical. It was shameless. It was low-down politics in every way. But Miliband’s stunt at PMQs very nearly worked.
His theme was the reform of housing benefit that will affect those in homes with unoccupied bedrooms. Ed Miliband calls this ‘a bedroom tax’. He kicked off by asking David Cameron about the case of ‘Alison’ who has twin sons serving in the army. While her boys are fighting abroad, Alison will be charged £25 extra per week for their bedrooms.
It’s wrong to call this a tax, said Cameron, it’s a necessary change to an unaffordable system. Miliband was waiting for him.
‘I’d like to see him explaining to Alison why her paying £25 more a week is not a tax.’
Cameron pointed out that if her sons are away, her income has fallen, so her overall entitlement must have risen. True, perhaps, but it didn’t dispel Miliband’s cunning image of hard-up patriotism abandoned by uncaring government.
Miliband collects the needy like a squirrel hording acorns and he had many more victims stashed away. He cited a claimant named ‘Diane’ whose weekly rent would rise to £100 if she were forced into private accommodation. And Diane’s current rent is just £65.68. As with ‘Alison’ the name is crucial. It carries huge emotive force. ‘Diane’ is no faceless statistic but a flesh-and-blood human being. Poor Diane. We can see her. We can feel her, almost. She seems to come bodying forth into the chamber. We sense her humiliation as she falls to her knees and begs the system to acquire what she has – a heart. And the petty sums involved – those little 68 pennies – invest her suffering with extra incrustations of hardship and woe.
In the game of manipulative sentimentality, Miliband played his cards to perfection. The Tories fell for it. They jeered in outrage as the list of impoverished claimants grew. This was what Labour had hoped for. As the Tories yelled and gesticulated, Miliband and Ed Balls pulled faces like shocked grannies watching the finale of the Chippendales. And, like those grannies, they secretly loved what they were seeing.
Finally, Miliband went for Cameron’s weak spot: the disabled. He mentioned a married claimant with a bed-ridden wife who has to sleep in the spare room. He too will incur ‘the bedroom tax.’
Cameron caved in. Perhaps fearful of appearing heartless, he offered a concession. And quite a big concession as well.
‘If he wants me to look at a specific case, I will.’
Did he mean that? Every case is ‘a specific case’. So the PM has now committed himself, on the floor of the Commons, to reviewing every file in the entire housing benefit bureaucracy. Crumbs. That’ll knock quite a hole in his half-term break.
Labour’s backbenchers followed their leader. Helen Goodman told us about a constituent living on £24 a week after paying her ‘bedroom tax’. This distressed woman is now receiving cognitive behavioural therapy. Ms Goodman told the PM that he himself must be mentally ill if he believes £24 is a living wage.
Julie Hilling demanded to know why Cameron spent his time ‘meeting lots of millionaires’ but never ordinary hard-up voters. At this point, a light-bulb went ping in David Cameron’s brain. He remembered something. He was no abuser of heroic servicemen or their struggling stony-broke mums. ‘I hold surgeries,’ he retorted, ‘I’ve got RAF Brize Norton in my constituency. And I meet voters who want a government that’s on the side of people who do the right thing. And which is clearing up the mess left by her party.’
Labour had all the fun today. But Cameron had something more valuable. The arguments. He repeatedly asked how Labour would reduce the £23 billion bill for housing benefit. He got no answer.