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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.