PMQs review: Cameron and Miliband stick to the script

As the economy worsens, both leaders are holding out for eventual victory.

Fortunately for David Cameron, parliament was in recess when last week's terrible employment figures were published, but Ed Miliband was determined not to let him escape. Playing his favourite game of "ask the Prime Minister a question he doesn't know the answer to", Miliband asked Cameron how much long-term youth unemployment had risen by since he scrapped the Future Jobs Fund in March. Cameron didn't know the answer (77 per cent) but he did know that youth unmployment rose by 40 per cent under Labour and that David Miliband (a man he quotes at every available opportunity) had assured him that "this government did not invent the problem".

Miliband lamented the PM's complacency and urged him to tax bankers' bonuses to create a 100,000 jobs for young people. But Cameron hit back with a potent stat of his own. Labour, he claimed, had pledged to use the revenue from the tax for nine separate causes. It was "the bank tax that likes to say yes". The snappy soundbite roused the Tory benches but Miliband had a new line of his own. Cameron was blaming others again, it's his ABC - Anyone But Cameron. At least some Tory ministers will have discreetly nodded in agreement.

For the rest of the session, the two leaders stuck to the script. Miliband accused Cameron of treating unemployment as "a price worth paying to protect his failed plan", while Cameron asked why Labour alone believed that the solution to a debt crisis was more debt. What he omitted to mention was that his own government is set to borrow £109bn more than forecast at the time of the Spending Review. Labour's old charge that you can't have a credible deficit reduction plan without growth rings truer every day.

Cameron's response will be to argue that things would have been even worse under Labour, a claim that Miliband, in the absence of a time machine, can never wholly refute. Today's flat and repetitive exchanges were a reminder that the economic battle might not end in victory for one side but in a messy draw.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Even before Brexit, immigrants are shunning the UK

The 49,000 fall in net migration will come at a cost.

Article 50 may not have been triggered yet but immigrants are already shunning the UK. The number of newcomers fell by 23,000 to 596,000 in the year to last September, with a sharp drop in migrants from the EU8 states (such as Poland and the Czech Republic). Some current residents are trying their luck elsewhere: emigration rose by 26,000 to 323,000. Consequently, net migration has fallen by 49,000 to 273,000, far above the government's target of "tens of thousands" but the lowest level since June 2014.

The causes of the UK's reduced attractiveness are not hard to discern. The pound’s depreciation (which makes British wages less competitive), the spectre of Brexit and a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia are likely to be the main deterrents (though numbers from Romania and Bulgaria remain healthy). Ministers have publicly welcomed the figures but many privately acknowledge that they come at a price. The OBR recently forecast that lower migration would cost £6bn a year by 2020-21. As well as reflecting weaker growth, reduced immigration is likely to reinforce it. Migrants pay far more in tax than they claim in benefits, with a net contribution of £7bn a year. An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent.

Earlier this week, David Davis revealed the government's economic anxieties when he told a press conference in Estonia: "In the hospitality sector, hotels and restaurants, in the social care sector, working in agriculture, it will take time. It will be years and years before we get British citizens to do those jobs. Don’t expect just because we’re changing who makes the decision on the policy, the door will suddenly shut - it won’t."

But Theresa May, whose efforts to meet the net migration target as Home Secretary were obstructed by the Treasury, is determined to achieve a lasting reduction in immigration. George Osborne, her erstwhile adversary, recently remarked: "The government has chosen – and I respect this decision – not to make the economy the priority." But in her subsequent interview with the New Statesman, May argued: "It is possible to achieve an outcome which is both a good result for the economy and is a good result for people who want us to control immigration – to be able to set our own rules on the immigration of people coming from the European Union. It is perfectly possible to find an arrangement and a partnership with the EU which does that."

Much depends on how "good" is defined. The British economy is resilient enough to endure a small reduction in immigration but a dramatic fall would severely affect growth. Not since 1997 has "net migration" been in the "tens of thousands". As Davis acknowledged, the UK has since become dependent on high immigration. Both the government and voters may only miss migrants when they're gone.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.