End the Punch-and-Judy politics

A less confrontational, more thoughtful era of politics has to start with David Cameron.

In British politics, Punch and Judy are for ever in and out of favour. David Cameron, as a new leader of the Conservative Party, promised an end to Punch-and-Judy-style debating, but then couldn't resist a bit of it. Blair was the same.

I guess even a saint, standing in front of everyone in the playground as they all shout "You're rubbish!", would respond eventually.

So I was pleased to see a tweet on today's PMQs from the Times's columnist David Aaronovitch today which said:

Rather enjoying the lobby's disappointment at PMQs not being a pointless slanging match.

Contrast that with a blog from Iain Martin at the Wall Street Journal, who claims that without the "Punch and Judy of politics" PMQs are "boring".

I, however, believe there is a way of getting this right.

In my fantasy world, David Cameron arrives as PM and sends out messages to all members of government saying that parliament is going to be totally different from now on.

It is no longer the intention to win "points" according to the Press Gallery's rules at Prime Minister's Questions. Instead, even if his tongue is bleeding from biting it, Cameron will resist the baiting and treat every questioner with the respect that his or her constituents deserve.

Cameron also communicates to all backbenchers, "No cheering and no jeering. We are in a serious and sober time in politics."

Just before the election, I found myself in a dubious situation at the arch Tory Carlton Club. The guest of honour was Margaret Thatcher. The person sitting next to me, who does not mix in typical Tory circles, asked me why all these rather bumptious men at the dinner kept shouting in über-posh voices: "Har, har, har!" I had to explain that they were saying, "Hear, hear."

If someone tuned in to PMQs without being a regular, they would ask similar questions.

To the wits of parliament, a Punch-and-Judy ban would be sheer torture. Could someone like William Hague or Michael Gove make it through their departmental questions without a witty putdown?

I would much rather see a parliament where someone is lauded for strong economic policies than one where that same person is sanctified for coming up with a "Stalin to Mr Bean" pay-off line.

Cameron himself would have to resist his weekly pre-rehearsed soundbites, criticising Ed Milliband's pre-rehearsed soundbites. Would someone like Ed Balls become uncomfortable and exposed in a debating scenario where the questions are searching but from which the invective is absent?

When a political reporter gives a politician points out of ten for PMQs, it is often based entirely on how well the MP bitch-slapped his or her opponent, not on the substance of the issue.

But if respect for politicians has never been lower and we have been doing PMQs the same way for years, isn't it time to try something different?

Come on, Cameron, you can change this. Nobody else can. It starts with you.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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