PMQs review: Hague offers jokes but no answers

Harman turns to the NHS as Hague steps in for Cameron.

With David Cameron at the G20 summit in Mexico and Nick Clegg at the UN summit in Rio, it was left to William Hague, who is First Secretary of State as well as Foreign Secretary, to hold the fort at today's PMQs, with Harriet Harman deputising for Ed Miliband (as is traditional on such occasions).

The session began slowly, with several banal questions from Harman on Burma (she asked Hague whether he would join her in expressing admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi). In response, Hague pointed out that he was the first European foreign minister to visit Burma earlier this year. However, the encounter took a partisan turn when Harman raised the NHS, traditionally a trump card for Labour at PMQs.

Hague managed to respond adequately enough to reports that cost-cutting NHS trusts are rationing care (he described it as "totally unacceptable" and pointed out that the Secretary of State can intervene) but failed to rebut Harman's claim that Cameron had broken his promise to increase the number of midwives. In response, in a series of references to Rebekah Brooks's infamous text to the PM, the deputy Labour leader quipped that before the election it was "Yes, we Cam". Now it's "No we can't." She added: "the Prime Minister said he could sum up his priority in three letters: NHS. Isn't it more like LOL?" The text was a political gift to Labour but Harman's jokes felt forced and fell rather flat.

It was Hague who had the line of the session when he noted Ed Balls's absence and quipped that he was off commissioning another poll into what people think of him, causing even Harman to laugh. The shadow chancellor, whose PMQs taunts routinely unsettle Cameron, will be pleased to know he was missed.

But on a more serious note, today's session was a reminder of why the NHS, even more than the economy, could prove an electoral headache for the Tories. Cameron worked hard to convince the electorate that the Tories could be trusted with the NHS and many now feel understandably betrayed. While Hague could deflect Harman's question about midwives with a reference to the doctors' strike (which Harman then condemned), that's not a trick Cameron will be able to play come 2015. "It's always the same, Labour builds up the NHS and Tories drag it down," said Harman at one point. The danger for the Tories is that most voters agree with her.

Foreign Secretary William Hague, who replaced David Cameron at today's Prime Minister's Questions. 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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