Ed Miliband speaking at his weekly press conference in October Source: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mehdi Hasan's PMQs review: MPs fiddle over borders as Europe burns

Miliband decided to go for Cameron over May but failed to land any significant blows.

PMQs was a disappointment. Few jokes, even fewer good lines - and no "gotcha" questions from Ed Miliband. Bizarrely, the Labour leader decided to devote all his six bites of the cherry to the ongoing border control row - despite the fact that, at the time of writing, Yvette Cooper has just kicked off a Labour opposition-day debate on the subject. And despite the fact that the eurozone is in meltdown, Italy's cost of borrowing has hit a new record and economic armageddon seems to be right round the corner. Oh, and despite the fact that Miliband didn't seem to be equipped with a set of killer questions. With Cooper sitting behind him, the Labour leader began with:

Can the Prime Minister tell us how many people entered the UK under the Home Secretary's relaxed border controls?

Cameron dodged the question, preferring to reel off a list of statistics ("The figures I do have are that the number of people arrested was up by 10 per cent...").

Later, Miliband asked:

Can he now confirm how many UK border staff are going to be cut under his government?

To which Cameron, having prepared for this particular question, responded by pointing out that there would still be 18,000 employees at the end of this parliament: "The same number as in 2006 when he [Miliband] was sitting in the Treasury and determining the budget". Ouch.

It was left to Labour MP Chris Leslie, later in the session, to provide a more challenging and interesting intervention, when he called on the Prime Minister to publish all the relevant Home Office documents on orders given to the UK Border Agency over the summer. Cameron didn't really have an answer ("All these issues will be aired...") but was able to joke that Leslie was trying to make up for ground "lost" by Miliband in the earlier exchange.

Miliband did have a few good-ish lines:

A month ago, he [Cameron] gave a speech called Reclaiming our Borders. . . His Home Secretary was busy relaxing our borders.

And:

He has been the Prime Minister for 18 months He cant keep saying it has nothing to do with him. It's his responsibility.

He also provided the Commons with a potentially-damning quote from the Home Secretary, from her opposition days:

I'm sick and tired of government ministers who simply blame other people when things go wrong.

I suspect May was squirming in her seat. Overall, however, what was striking was the Prime Minister's unflinching, wholehearted support for his Home Secretary throughout PMQs. As he pointed out, in his exchange with the Leader of the Opposition:

The simple fact is that the head of the UK border agency, Rob Whiteman. . . he said this: 'Brodie Clark admitted to me on the 2 November that on a number of occasions this year he authorized his staff to go further than ministerial action. I therefore suspended him from his duties. . . It is unacceptable that one of my senior official went further than what was approved.'

He also told the Commons that he backed the "suspension" of Clark (who has denied Theresa May's claims).

We can assume then that the PM has been well-briefed by May and is convinced that she hasn't done anything wrong - and, crucially, can survive this particular political crisis. Otherwise, I suspect, he would have hung her out to dry. As Sunday Telegraph political editor Patrick Hennessy noted on Twitter:

Contrast Cam's support for May - wants to cut immigration - with him saying Fox "has done" a good job at #PMQs before Fox quit

Cameron was also able to end on a high by once again quoting Maurice Glasman, the Blue Labour peer, ally and adviser to Miliband, who said earlier this year that Labour "lied" about immigration.

The Labour leader might have been thinking to himself, "With friends like these. . ."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal 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. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.