PMQs review: Cameron's anger boils over

An easy win for Miliband against a red-faced Cameron.

With the country officially in recession and a cabinet minister's career on the line, today's PMQs was always likely to be an easy win for Ed Miliband. And so it proved. In the circumstances, David Cameron's performance was far from disastrous but, as Miliband put it, he is now shrouded by a "shadow of sleaze".

Some will question Miliband's decision to devote just two of his six questions to the economy but, on this issue, Cameron performed better than expected. His argument that "the solution to a debt crisis cannot be more debt" is one that will continue to resonate with many as the eurozone nears the precipice. Conversely, his attack on Labour for "gettting us into this mess" is one that is proving ever less effective with the passage of time.

It was on Jeremy Hunt that Cameron came unstuck. Challenged by Miliband to defend Hunt's position, he merely replied that the Leveson inquiry should be allowed to proceed and that it was important to hear "every side of the story". Yet as Miliband noted, it is Cameron, not Leveson, who is responsible for his ministers' conduct. The resignation of Adam Smith, Hunt's special adviser, this morning suggests that the government is, in fact, pre-judging the outcome of the inquiry. Oddly, however, Miliband failed to question Cameron on the revelation that he did discuss the BSkyB bid with James Murdoch. The strongest charge against the PM is that Hunt was doing his master's bidding.

The exchanges ended with a red-faced Cameron shouting, "I don't duck my responsibilites, what a pity he can't live up to his!" That wasn't the only flash of anger from the PM. In response to a question from Labour MP Shabana Mahmood on the recession, he haughtily remarked: "well read". Cameron was alleging that the question had been pre-written but to many it sounded like yet another put-down of a female MP.

Cameron hot under the collar Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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