PMQs review: Clegg's assault on Labour cheers the Tories

The Deputy PM shouted himself hoarse as he defended the coalition's economic record.

So forceful was Nick Clegg's defence of the government at today's PMQs that, by the end of the session, his voice had been reduced to an IDS-like croak. Deputising for David Cameron, who doesn't return from the Gulf until later today, Clegg launched attack after attack on Labour. Asked by Harriet Harman, who stood in for Ed Miliband, why the Lib Dems had broken their election pledge to increase police numbers, Clegg thundered, "at least they can trust this side of the House with the economy!" When Harman replied that the public couldn't trust his party on tuition fees, on childcare or on the police, Clegg, his voice rising with anger, exclaimed, "What about her promise of no more boom and bust? What happened to that one?" He added that while the government had reduced the deficit by a quarter and reformed welfare, Labour had merely "gone on a few marches", "denied any responsibility" for the deficit, and failed to fill in its "blank sheet of paper". Sat next to Clegg on the frontbench, George Osborne smiled with pleasure at the Deputy PM's performance. Given the ferocity of his attacks on Labour, it's becoming ever harder to see how Clegg could work with Miliband in the event of a hung parliament.

Earlier in the session, Harman had questioned Clegg on the Leveson inquiry in an attempt to drive a wedge between him and Cameron. While Clegg emphasised his commitment to "a free, raucous, independent press", he added that "business as usual" was not acceptable. Provided that Leveson's recommendations were "workable and proportionate", Clegg said he would support them, a stance that leaves the door open to some form of statutory regulation.

A notable moment came when Tory MP Mark Reckless mischievously asked the Deputy PM whether he would be involved in choosing Britain's next EU commissioner (it is often suggested that Clegg could resign as Lib Dem leader to take up the post when it falls vacant in 2013), to which Clegg, refusing to play dumb, replied: "I won’t be a candidate, however much he may hope otherwise". It was, as far as I can recall, the first time that he had explicitly ruled himself out of the running.

Both Clegg and Harman also took the opportunity to congratulate Barack Obama on his re-election. After Clegg had done so, to cheers from Labour MPs, he presciently observed, "I suspect that's the only point I will be cheered by the benches opposite." Harman offered a spirited endorsement of Obama, noting that the US President had pledged to "create more jobs", "provide healthcare for all" and tackle "the scourge of inequality". Her message, in short, was "just like Labour!"

Nick Clegg leaves number 10 Downing Street for Parliament earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.