PMQs sketch: Smug Dave escapes to Strasbourg

Cameron struggles to maintain his tired economic defence.

David Cameron has been called many things since he became Prime Minister, some of them true, some of them anatomically impossible, but today his many qualities were summed up in just one word -- 'smug'. It may have taken Ed Miliband 18 months to think it up but checking on some of the synonyms for it -- big-headed, complacent, egoistical, overweening, pompous, prideful, self-satisfied and swell-headed -- let the reader decide if the cap fits.

It certainly appeared to be an undaunted Dave who appeared in front of the Commons at Prime Ministers Questions with the confidence of a man untouched by presiding over Britain's first foray beyond the £1 trillion mark (how easy that trips off the tongue) in the national debt. Or indeed had only just heard that the economy had shrunk by 0.2% in the last quarter and could be on its way back into recession. But the mask seemed to slip a bit when the Labour leader, with uncharacteristic brevity, asked him what had gone wrong with his economic plan.

Flanked by a much more doleful looking Chancellor George, and the increasingly embarrassed Lib-Dem leader/Deputy Prime Minister Nick, Dave trotted out his usual defence that what was not the fault of Labour was the fault of Europe. But with more than a year and a half of Prime Ministerial salary in the bank, that defence failed even to get his own side going, apart from the usual handful on day-release.

Dave suddenly seemed off his game as Ed struck home with his charge of self-satisfied smug complacency and even George squirmed as the suddenly refreshed Labour leader stuck in the word 'arrogance' for extra measure. The rictus grin slipped even further when Ed popped up for his second bite and mentioned Dave's present biggest nightmare, reforming the NHS. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, now known in Tory circles as dead man walking, was not in obvious sight as Ed pointed out that everyone apart from the PM wanted the reforms abandoned.

Even as Dave struggled to find the prepared rebuttal in his exercise book, the relative silence from his own side confirmed that Mr Lansley should continue checking under his car every morning (it is at times like these that you can see the Deputy PM hoping that some passing space ship, spotting a like soul, might just beam him up out if it).

It is often said that Prime Ministers facing trouble at home take themselves abroad where they are treated with the deference they deserve and that probably explained Dave's colour returning from an alarming puce to its traditional golden brown as PMQs drew to a close. As George demonstrated yesterday, Europe might be a no-go area for Tories politically but it is still usefully close to escape to when times are tough. Thus, by this afternoon Dave will be in Strasbourg where he intends to while away an hour being nasty to the European Court of Human Rights. This is not expected to produce any significant changes in policy but always goes down well with the Sun and the Mail and the Telegraph for whom the civilized world still stops at a pub on the cliffs overlooking Dover harbour.

The Prime Minister will then be popping on to Davos in Switzerland where every year the real masters of the universe gather for the World Economic Forum and invite prime ministers to explain to them the plans for their countries they have yet to tell their citizens. It is said that one of the themes for this year's meeting is income disparity which should be relevant since at least 70 billionnaires will be present.

Dave is going to Davos with Chancellor George and as mere millionaires themselves income disparity will be on their minds and they clearly have much to learn. They will be hosting a Great British Tea party for the rich and powerful but without star guest Mick Jagger, who arrived and just as quickly left Switzerland, having been told his appearance was a coup for the Tory Party. Sir Mick said he felt "exploited" by the Government, a sentiment that may be shared by the many millions having their Great British Tea at home tomorrow night.

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

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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