Ed Miliband speaking at his weekly press conference in October Source: Getty Images
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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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories