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
Show Hide image

Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit