The main business of the day in the House of Commons is Labour’s debate on Lord Freud, a row that blew up nearly a fortnight ago. The party’s motion, entitled ‘Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Welfare Reform and disabled people’, finishes with
‘. . . this House has no confidence in the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Reform; and calls on the Prime Minister to dismiss him.’
It’s not a wise move to put any money on David Cameron meeting this demand, given that Freud apologised on the same day his comments about disabled people and the minimum wage were raised at Prime Minister’s Questions. Unless you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, it might not be wise to sit through the entire debate, both sides of which can be summarised in these three points:
1. We are very offended by what you are saying and will offer nothing more to the Chamber than our deep anger at your offensiveness.
2. We care more about disabled people than the other party, which has done all these bad things.
3. The other party is being very cynical.
Labour MP Kate Green told the Chamber that Lord Freud’s comments had chimed with the rise in reported hate crimes against disabled people, and that as a minister (rather than a Labour adviser, which is how he first cropped up in Westminster), Freud should not be saying such offensive things. A scornful Mark Harper, who was responding for the government, replied that he found her comments offensive, and that ‘this is a cynical debate’. The minister for work and pensions – with vocal help from Iain Duncan Smith, who sat behind Harper on the government bench – argued that Labour had been attempting to distract from the improving economy at a difficult PMQs. Both parties set out what they had done, and what their opponents hadn’t done, for disabled people.
In some ways, they’re all correct. Lord Freud made some clumsy comments and mistakenly accepted the premise of a question. He shouldn’t have said what he did. Labour is using those clumsy wrong comments in a cynical way because it knew it was going to have a tricky day on 15 October.
But there is an interesting question about whether Labour should have done what it did with those Lord Freud quotes – and whether it should be flogging the issue now, nearly two weeks after he didn’t resign.
The party says it doesn’t want to get involved in the sort of dirty politics that the Tories are flinging at Ed Miliband in the run-up to the General Election, yet they too are clearly not immune to a bit of sneaky recording and twisting of words. That Labour produced these comments at an opportune moment suggests that their attack machine is working well, and that they’re not prepared to send their leader into the Commons naked on tricky days.
But will this behaviour benefit a party that tries to portray itself as more decent, more moral, than the Tories? Ed Miliband likes to talk about himself as someone who understands why voters are so fed up with the mainstream political parties, but surely this trick is right out of the mainstream politics playbook?
It’s a difficult question for a party that wants to win an election: what will attract or put off voters more? But the more immediate question is whether today’s debate is a bit pointless when Lord Freud is highly unlikely to resign and the political debate has moved on to other errors of government.