PMQs Sketch: Ed was right said Dave and Dave was right said Ed

The Alex effect that brought the two leaders together.

When your back is as firmly against the wall as Ed Miliband's you seek help anywhere you can find it and today it came in the rotund shape of one Alexander Eliot Anderson Salmond First Minister of Scotland. After experiencing the annus horibilis of his political life in one week, Ed turned up at the first Prime Ministers Questions of the New Year with all the obvious pleasure of a condemned man being asked to drive himself to the gallows.

Even as he set out he received the happy news that after 20 months presiding over the worst economic crisis since 1929 the latest opinion polls give the Government a 40% share, exactly the same as that of Labour. Buoyed up with that news, not to mention the fullsome advice from former friends and foe to beef up his performance, it was unsuprising that he looked a tad nervous not helped by the welcoming cheers of the refreshed Tory boot boys and girls happy to see him humiliated further.

His nerves had not been helped by his mugging by John Humphries on The Meet John Humphries Programme just 24 hours earlier and a less than fiery non-relaunch of Labour's programme for the future. It was against this background that his advisors had to come up with a cunning plan to persuade both party and country that Ed could have the occasional good days to balance out the bad.

The shelves in the cunning plan shop were clearly empty so Ed' s team turned to a tried and tested formula to keep him out of trouble -- bore your way through. Prime Minister Dave, whose own star has been on a par recently with that seen over Bethlehem, could not wait to get at the Labour leader and seemed non-plussed to be asked about rail fares from Bedford to London. The 500 MPs for whose constituents commuting is not a problem looked elsewhere as the two left the audience behind in an argument about who should take the most blame.

As a tactic it worked since Dave did not get a chance to open the book of Ed insults he had clearly got for Christmas and had brought with him to the Chamber. But the purpose of PMQs is two-fold, first to encourage the troops and discourage the opposition and secondly to get a sound-bite for the evening news.

Ed's record on the first has been somewhat patchy and early success against Dave has only served to bring out the years of bully-boy behaviour so attractive in Britain's ruling class and its Thatcher adherents. Even on the sound-bite front Dave has managed to pull off more wins than losses in recent weeks and Ed's boys knew another victory would only lead to even more smelly stuff being poured on their man.

With that in mind they decided to play the Armageddon card -- Scotland -- to guarantee success. Dave and Ed might hold each other in mutual contempt but that counts as nought for the the lack of fraternal feelings they have for the man who sailed to substantial victory in Scotland, SNP leader Alex Salmond. It is not enough that the Tory Party has, as one SNP member put it, "less MPs than Panda's in Edinburgh Zoo" or that Labour, once controllers of Scottish politics, are now a rump party, but it is the sheer perceived smugness of Alex that really upsets them. Not only do they know he has shafted them but he is happy to remind them at any opportunity and never more so than this week as Dave tried to remind him that the UK still has the U bit at the front.

With the timing and wording of whither Scotland now firmly on the agenda it is one of the few subjects guaranteeing unanimity between Ed and Dave. Ed was right said Dave and Dave was right said Ed as both pledged to work together against the Alex effect. Even the Commons seemed stunned into silence by this sudden outburst of unanimity.

It got Ed through this PMQs but the trouble with Armageddon is coming up with the sequel.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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.