PMQs review: Cameron flounders

Miliband has so far set the agenda on News International. A visibly flustered Cameron did little to

The accepted wisdom this week has been that the phone hacking crisis has allowed Ed Miliband to find his voice as leader of the opposition, and this was confirmed at today's PMQs.

Miliband was calm and confident, while David Cameron looked increasingly harried and flustered.

Miliband opened by asking whether Rebekah Brooks should resign -- an awkward point for Cameron given his well-documented personal friendship with her. His response was that she was "right to resign" and that this should have been accepted (according to some reports, she offered to resign). A huge positive for Miliband in this matter is that he is relatively "clean" when it comes to social relationships with the Murdoch clan - much more so than his brother, David, who is close to Elisabeth Murdoch and her husband Matthew Freud.

A second significant weak point for Cameron - and one that was raised repeatedly - is "the catastrophic error of judgement" he made in hiring Andy Coulson. Cameron repeated his defence that in this country you are "innocent until proven guilty". He added that he hired Coulson on the basis of assurances that he had not broken the law -- the same assurances made to police and a select committee. "If these assurances turn out not to be true then it's not just that he shouldn't have worked in government, but that he should face the full force of the law."

His discomfort on the issue was evident in his snarky response to Labour MP Rushanara Ali: "As I said before she wrote her question, or had it written..." As ever, Cameron falls back on nastiness when he is floundering.

Cameron's decision not to appear at this afternoon's debate on phone-hacking has also weakened his position. He indicated to Miliband last night that he would reply in person to the Labour leader - which in itself shows how nervous No 10 is that Cameron be left behind on the issue, as it is unusual for a Prime Minister to reply to an opposition day motion.

The fact that he will now not be present for the debate (Sir George Young, the Leader of the House, will respond in his place) gave Miliband some easy shots. "I look forward to debating this with the Leader of the House," he said. Cameron's only response was: "I think we should focus on the substance."

In moving early this weekend to condemn Rupert Murdoch and call for the BSkyB bid to be dropped, Miliband set the agenda, and Cameron knows it. He did little to gain back that lead today.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.