Cameron on a roll as jobless rate is slashed to new low

Unemployment figures down, interests rates to stay low, Tories ahead in the polls: not a good day for Ed

Column LAST UPDATED AT 13:40 ON Wed 14 May 2014

DAVID CAMERON today faced his last session of Prime Minister’s Questions for nearly a month buoyed by record employment figures that left Labour leader Ed Miliband looking flat.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics released this morning show that more than quarter of a million more people found jobs in Britain in the past three months – the biggest quarterly increase since 1971.

The employment figures were coupled with more good news from Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, that interest rates will stay low “for some time”, putting off the threat that more people will be plunged into debt with higher mortgages.

Despite the good jobless figures, MPs are the ones looking under-employed. They have a break for canvassing in next week’s European and local elections running into the Whitsun recess. What with the State Opening next month, there will not be another session of PMQs until 11 June.

Opposition MPs have dubbed it the 'Zombie Parliament' because there is so little business scheduled for the next year. The switch to a five-year fixed Parliament means the general election cannot be held until May 2015 – and, on the current showing, Ed Miliband may be glad of the extra time to improve his performance.

The employment figures came with perfect timing for Cameron, who was already due to to face Miliband at PMQs just 24 hours after two opinion polls showed the Tories leading Labour by two points and Miliband's personal rating down to minus-25 - worse than even Gordon Brown ever endured.

As the Daily Mail's political editor James Chapman tweeted: “PMQs gift for PM.”

In the event, Miliband was forced to welcome the unemployment figures before turning to the frank admission yesterday by Ian Read, the chief executive of Pfizer, that the takeover of AstraZeneca could mean job cuts and reduced science spending.

But as Labour MPs looked on glumly, Miliband was attacked by Cameron for turning down a meeting with Pfizer because he had been too busy on political engagements. “He quite literally put party politics above the national interest,” shouted Cameron.

Given that Lord Heseltine, the former Tory Cabinet minister, had called for the Prime Minister to stop the takeover, Miliband's failure to exploit the issue showed his limitations at PMQs. Cameron, lifted by the economy, taunted him: “The country is getting stronger and he is getting weaker…”

The ONS figures showed that 283,000 more people found work in the past quarter, which was the largest quarterly increase since records began in 1971.

The number of people out of work in the UK fell by 133,000 to a fresh five-year low of 2.2 million in the three months to March. The unemployment rate now stands at 6.8 per cent of the workforce – better than all other European countries apart from Germany.

On top of the healthy stats, the Cameron camp are growing increasingly confident that they will escape Tory in-fighting next week after the European elections in which they could come third behind Ukip and Labour.

Grant Shapps, the party chairman, reportedly had supper at Conservative party headquarters with euro-sceptic critics John Redwood, Bill Cash and Bernard Jenkin, but came away convinced they are “on side” and won’t be calling for Cameron’s head.

As Ben Brogan, the Daily Telegraph's chief political commentator, posted earlier today, there was "no need" to urge Redwood and co to rally round: "It was Mr Redwood, I am told, who urged Mr Shapps and his colleagues to hold the line, keep their heads."

This marks quitte a turnaround for Cameron who has had trouble ever since forming the coalition with the Lib Dems uniting his backbenchers behind him. As Brogan said, "One of the hallmarks of the Cameron premiership, until recently, was a shocking lack of unity… The extent of his unpopularity among his colleagues was a constant source of wonder."

Today, says Brogan, the mutterings have mainly stopped… and apart from "the odd rumble from the likes of David Davis, all is sweetness and light."

However, the 2015 general election is far from being in the bag. As Jo Coburn of the Daily Politics said today, because of an in-built bias for Labour in the redrawing of constituency boundaries, psephologists reckon the Tories will need a lead over Labour of 11 per cent at the next general election to win with an overall majority, allowing them to ditch the Lib Dems. 

This week's polls give them only a two per cent lead: there's still a very long way to go. ·