This week’s Question Time came from Bristol, with panelists (left to right in photo) historian and Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley, Caroline Lucas MP (Green), Douglas Alexander MP (Labour), Elizabeth Truss MP (Conservative), and Vince Cable MP (Lib Dem).
Question 1: Following the Miliband/Fallon spat, at what point do the parties stop slinging mud and start selling themselves?
Dimbleby clarifies that the question refers to the Conservative Michael Fallon (MP and Defence Secretary) who wrote in the Times newspaper that Miliband had ‘stabbed his own brother’ in the back to become Labour leader, and would likewise stab the UK in the back by doing a post-election deal with the SNP, including the removal of Trident nuclear weapons. Miliband said in response that the Conservatives were resorting to ‘desperate smears’ and that Fallon ‘has demeaned himself and he has demeaned his office’.
Elizabeth Truss says Fallon ‘was absolutely right to say what he did’ because the SNP has said they won’t deal with Labour unless Trident is scrapped, and Labour will need their support to have any chance of forming a government. She defends the Conservative campaign as ‘the most positive’ based on a YouGov poll of public opinion. She questions Ed Miliband’s character.
Douglas Alexander says what we’ve heard from Fallon is ‘absolute rubbish’ and the remarks ‘revealed more about the Conservative party’s character’ than that of Ed Miliband. He sees it as a smokescreen so that the Conservatives avoid talking about their record and plans for the future. Dimbleby quotes from Prime Minister’s Questions, where Miliband has previously called Cameron ‘dodgy’, ‘a bully’ and ‘rotten’, asking what the difference is. Alexander says it’s one thing to have ‘an exchange in the House of Commons’, quite another to write an article claiming that Miliband wouldn’t want to keep the country safe.
Tim Stanley asks where the line on insults should be drawn and says ‘Ed Miliband did not stab his brother in the back; he stabbed him in the front,’ which got a few laughs from the audience. He points out that Ed’s reason for running was because David Miliband was on the right of the Labour party; he was on the left of the party, and they had very different ideas regarding policy. ‘What’s happening here is that both parties are panicking’ because they’re neck-and-neck in the polls and they’re trying to win traditional voters back from the smaller parties. He says the squabbling over character takes us away from a serious discussion about policy.
Dimbleby asks Vince Cable to pick up on the point of policy on Trident. Cable says the Lib Dem’s position is that we do need ‘a minimum deterrent’, but not one that has to circulate the globe 24/7. He says the debate on Trident should ‘be pitched somewhere between the obsolete idea that we need Trident in all its former glory, or complete unilateral disarmament’.
Caroline Lucas says the comments shows ‘how desperate’ the Conservatives are and ‘how out of touch’ the government is, because most people want to get rid of nuclear weapons. ‘In a time of austerity, the idea of spending £100bn over the next 30 years in terms of replacing Trident and maintaining it is nothing short of an obscenity’, and we could instead use the money elsewhere, in schools, in hospitals, and to tackle ‘the real threat that we face which, in my view, is the climate crisis’. She points out that the threats of cyber-crime and terrorism would not be helped by Trident.
Dimbleby challenges Lucas on the public opinion figures, saying it’s actually 25% who support the idea of removing the nuclear deterrent. She says it’s a majority in the ‘vast majority’ of polls, particularly if asked in the context of what we should spend money on. Dimbleby asks for an annual figure; Lucas trips over the maths and Truss cuts in with her own figure that it’s 6% of the defence budget. Truss adds that we don’t know what the threats will be in the future, so we need ‘a range of capabilities’ to ensure adequate response to defence issues.
Tim Stanley says the parties are all taking similar stances: ‘the Conservatives want to have 4 of these submarines of death’, Labour would have 3 of them, and the Lib Dems would have them on a reduced schedule. Lucas shouts over applause ‘and the Green party would have no submarines of death!’
I’m not sure what Stanely imagines the new nuclear submarines would look like, but I’m guessing it’s something like this, with a death laser at the front and exuding a poisonous trail:
Question 2: Was Ed Balls right about the status of non-doms in January, or is Ed Miliband right about it now?
[This refers to the idea of abolishing non-domicile tax status, which Ed Balls had said in January may lead to a loss of revenue, but which Ed Miliband has now announced as a way of raising money.]
Douglas Alexander says the video clip of Ed Balls was edited; what he actually said was that if you abolished nom-dom status immediately, ‘with no provision’ for temporary residents such as students, there would ‘potentially be a loss of income’. Labour has now looked at how to deal with the anomaly and will include provisions for those who are genuinely here temporarily. He says ‘there is a fundamental issue of fairness’.
Elizabeth Truss says the policy won’t affect 60% of those currently holding non-dom status, and it will effectively just be a name change. She said there’s a danger of ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’.
Vince Cable clarifies that as a non-dom ‘you don’t pay tax as British people on your international income’ and it can be passed on as a hereditary status, the latter of which ‘should certainly be scrapped’. He says there are two different approaches: either looking at the principle, or looking at how to get the most money out of these people, and there is currently a levy imposed on nom-doms.
Caroline Lucas says ‘Labour has finally done the right thing’ and that there is always a lot of talk about businesses or the rich leaving, ‘but in reality they very seldom do’, and there’s no reason to suppose we won’t get some money out of it. She says we should call their bluff and ‘she will personally help them pack their suitcases’ if they decide to leave the UK in order to avoid tax. Dimbleby says it sounds like she’s approaching it as a moral issue; Lucas says ‘it’s about justice’.
Tim Stanley says there’s an impression that non-doms pay no tax, but ‘they do pay tax on what they earn in this country’; it’s just that they pay no tax on what they earn overseas. He says they currently contribute £8.3bn and there’s a good chance that if you abolish the status altogether ‘you’ll drive people away’.
Question 3: Was Tony Blair right to have involved himself in the EU debate?
Dimbleby clarifies that Tony Blair has described the Conservatives’ plans to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership in 2017 as ‘a disaster’.
Tim Stanley says Blair is ‘damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t’ and would be accused of hiding if he didn’t weigh in. He says Euroscepticism is rising across Europe and we need ‘to have a say’ on EU membership.
Vince Cable says Blair attracts negative press over Iraq and his ‘pots of money’, but his views on this issue should be taken seriously. If the Conservatives held a referendum in 2017 it would create uncertainty and Blair is warning about negative consequences for investment and the market.
Douglas Alexander says Blair has a ‘unique perspective’ having represented Britain at meetings of EU leaders over ten years. He asks whether we really believe we’d get a better deal approaching markets such as China as 60 million people rather than 500 million people.
Elizabeth Truss says ‘people of my generation have not had an opportunity to vote on part of our national life’ and she wants to see a more ‘competitive and open Europe’. She flags issues created by the Eurozone but says some progress has been made elsewhere, e.g. the discard ban on fisheries, signalling we can have a reformed Europe.
Caroline Lucas says ‘I want to see the EU reformed as well, but the idea that the best way to do that is to walk away from it is pretty odd’. She is pro-EU but would also like to let people have a voice through an in-out referendum. She says we need more politicians to argue ‘passionately’ for staying in Europe instead of giving the floor to UKIP.
Question 4: Why should students trust Labour’s promise to cut tuition fees?
[Labour have promised to reduce the cost from £9,000 per year to £6,000 per year.]
Vince Cable says ‘all the major parties have made fools of themselves over this issue, including mine’. Labour had originally promised not to introduce them, and then promised no top-up fees; they went back on both. The Lib Dems promised to scrap them and didn’t, and the Conservatives were against having student fees in 2005 but kept them, ‘so we’ve all done it’. Cable says ‘the system of repayment operates like a graduate tax’ and money was needed to keep universities going and open up apprenticeship schemes. The cut to £6,000 is a bad thing because the universities will get less funding.
Douglas Alexander says the money wouldn’t come out of university budgets, but from taxing the wealthy. The government will make up the shortfall in funding. Labour are determined to rebuild trust where it has previously been lost on this issue.
Tim Stanley says ‘it was Labour who helped to introduce them’ but student numbers have risen since the fees were introduced. He warns there is a ‘black hole’ in funding; the mansion tax and change in nom-dom status will only raise small amounts and they need to be honest about what the true costs will be.
Caroline Lucas says ‘we are right to be suspicious’ and she would prefer to have a debate about the purpose of education and how it should be funded in its entirety. The Greens would scrap tuition fees altogether and instead have a ‘business education tax’.
Elizabeth Truss says the new system ‘is much fairer for those on lower incomes’.
Tim Stanley initially provided good analysis on the first question, particularly in pointing out that Ed Miliband’s opposition to his brother David was ideological rather than emotional, and wanting more fact-based discussion on policy. He drifted off a bit when Trident did get discussed, though, introducing his own emotive language with the ‘submarines of death’ talk. He answered along Conservative lines in the remaining questions, believeing we shouldn’t scrap non-dom status, should have an EU referendum and shouldn’t trust Labour on funding tuition fee cuts.
Caroline Lucas spoke passionately and got a lot of party policy across, particularly seeing climate change as the main international threat, scrapping Trident and wanting to replace tuition fees with funding through taxation, but at times spoke too quickly and tripped over her words. She firmly backed Labour on the ending of non-dom status and made it clear she would back it on principle even if it didn’t raise much revenue.
Douglas Alexander was strong on the Fallon question but generalized too much on non-doms, and his defense of EU membership was a bit lacklustre. He was on firmer ground on the tuition fees question, presenting it as both a worthwhile policy in its own right and a chance to win back public trust in politicians.
Elizabeth Truss was the sole defender of Fallon’s comments and to her credit didn’t backtrack when it proved unpopular with the audience. She also provided a figure when Lucas struggled. Her contribution lessened as the programme went on and she answered direct questions with generalizations on a few occasions.
Vince Cable looked more lively than I’d previously seen him on Question Time and perhaps has been revived by the fact he can now publicly distance himself from Conservative policy. He would like to see a reduced nuclear deterrent in place, the end to hereditary nom-doms (though not the entire status), no EU referendum in 2017 and to keep the current tuition fees scheme. The Lib Dems have pitched their national election campaign as being the middle ground between the Conservatives and Labour, so it was fitting that Cable’s opinions were somewhere between Alexander’s and Truss’s.
Bonus points to everyone for getting through the non-doms question without a slip-up in pronunciation.