PMQs review: a win for Miliband as Cameron slips up on food banks

"I never thought the big society was about feeding hungry children in Britain," Miliband tells Cameron.

The final PMQs of the year is always a daunting occasion for both party leaders; a poor performance risks their MPs going home for Christmas disgruntled with their leadership. Last year, a duff joke about coalition disunity sunk Ed Miliband as David Cameron quipped, "It's not that bad, it's not like we're brothers or anything". This year, happily for the Labour leader, there was no repeat.

After asking Cameron to update the Commons on British operations in Afghanistan, Miliband turned to the subject of food banks, asking the PM whether he was concerned that they had increased six-fold in the last three years. Cameron responded by ill-advisedly hailing food bank volunteers as part of the "big society", prompting Miliband to reply, in one of his best lines for weeks, "I never thought the big society was about feeding hungry children in Britain."

Cameron attempted to defend the coalition's record by pointing to the council tax freeze and the increase in the personal allowance as evidence of the action he had taken to protect living standards. But in a reminder of just how politically toxic the decision to cut the top rate of tax remains, Miliband replied that Cameron had imposed a "strivers' tax" on low and middle income families (a reference to George Osborne's plan to uprate tax credits by just 1 per cent over the next three years), whilst giving an average tax cut of £107,500 to people earning over a million pounds a year. Expect Labour to take every opportunity to remind the public of this fact ahead of the official introduction of the reduced top rate (50p to 45p) in April.

Finding his stride, Miliband said Cameron was "back to his old ways" after reports that he had an "intense conversation" with Rebekah Brooks last weekend. "No doubt they're both looking forward to the Boxing Day hunt," he added. Miliband ended by declaring that no one now believed Cameron could be a "one nation" prime minister, to which Cameron, in a flash of wit, replied: "it wouldn't be Christmas without the repeats." He ended by turning to what remains his strongest suit - the deficit - accusing Miliband of offering more of the "something-for-nothing culture that got us into this mess in the first place."

Both leaders played to their strengths today. While polls show that the public believe that the coalition is cutting too far, too fast, they also show that they continue to regard the cuts as necessary and blame Labour more than the coalition for them. The economic debate is finely poised. The next year will begin to show in whose favour it will be resolved.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said David Cameron could never be a "one nation" prime minister. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Staying in the EU would make it easier to tackle concerns about immigration, not less

Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

As Theresa May prepares to set out her latest plan for Brexit in Florence on Friday, those on all sides of the debate will wait to see if there are answers to fundamental questions about Britain’s future outside of the EU. Principle among those is how the UK immigration system will work. How can we respond to Leave voters’ concerns, while at the same time ensuring our economy isn’t badly damaged?

We must challenge the basic premise of the Vote Leave campaign: that dealing with public’s concern about immigration means we have to leave the EU and Single Market.

In fact the opposite is true. Our study into the options available to the UK shows that we are more likely to be able to restore faith in the system by staying within Europe and reforming free movement, than by leaving.

First, there are ways to exercise greater control over EU migration without needing to change the rules. It is not true that the current system of free movement is "unconditional", as recently claimed in a leaked Home Office paper. In fact, there is already considerable scope under existing EU rules to limit free movement.

EU rules state that in order to be given a right to reside, EU migrants must be able to demonstrate proof that they are either working, actively seeking work, or self-sufficient, otherwise they can be proactively removed after three months.

But unlike other continental systems, the UK has chosen not to operate a worker registration system for EU nationals and thus has no way of tracking where they are or what they’re doing. This could be changed tomorrow, if the government were so minded.

Other reforms being discussed at the highest levels within Europe would help deal with the sense that those coming to the UK drive down wages and conditions. The UK could make common cause with President Macron in France, who is pushing for reform of the so-called "Posted Workers Directive", so that companies seeking to bring in workers from abroad have to pay those workers at the same rate as local staff. It could also follow the advice of the TUC and implement domestic reforms of our labour market to prevent exploitation and undercutting.

Instead, the UK government has chosen to oppose reform of the Posted Workers Directive and made it clear that it has no interest in labour market reform.

Second, achieving more substantive change to free movement rules is not as implausible as often portrayed. Specifically, allowing member states to enact safeguards to slow the pace of change in local communities is not unrealistic. While the principle of free movement is a cornerstone of the European project, how it is applied in practice has evolved. And given that other countries, such as France, have expressed concern and called for reform, it is likely to evolve further.

The reforms to free movement negotiated by David Cameron in 2016 illustrate that the EU Commission can be realistic. Cameron’s agreement (which focused primarily on benefits) also provides an important legal and political precedent, with the Commission having agreed to introduce "safeguards" to respond to "situations of inflow of workers from other Member States of an exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time".

Similar precedents can be found within a number of other EU agreements, including the Acts of Accession of new Member States, the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The UK should seek a strengthened version of Cameron’s "emergency brake", which could be activated in the event of "exceptional inflows" from within the EU. We are not the first to argue this.

Of course some will say that it is unrealistic to expect the UK to be able to get more than Cameron achieved in 2016. But put yourself if in the shoes of the EU. If you believe in a project and want it to succeed, moral imperative is balanced with realism and it hardly needs pointing out that the political context has radically shifted since Cameron’s negotiation.

In contrast, a "hard Brexit" will not deliver the "control of our borders" that Brexiteers have promised. As our report makes clear, the hospitality, food, manufacturing and social care sectors heavily depend on EU workers. Given current employment rates, this means huge labour shortages.

These shortages cannot be wished away with vague assertions about "rejoining the world" by the ultra free-market Brexiteers. This is about looking after our elderly and putting food on our tables. If the UK leaves in April 2019, it is likely that the government will continue to want most categories of EU migration to continue. And whatever controls are introduced post-Brexit are unlikely to be enforced at the border (doing so would cause havoc, given our continued commitment to visa-free travel).  Instead we would be likely to see an upsurge in illegal migration from within the EU, with people arriving at the border as "visitors" but then staying on to seek work. This is likely to worsen problems around integration, whereby migrants come and go in large numbers, without putting down roots.

We can do this a different way. The important issues that most drive public concern about EU migration - lack of control, undercutting, pace of change - can be dealt with either within current rules or by seeking reform within the EU.

The harsh truth is that Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

Some will say that the entire line of argument contained here is dangerous, since it risks playing into an anti-immigrant narrative, rather than emphasising migration’s benefits. This is an argument for the ivory tower, not the real world.

There is a world of difference between pandering to prejudice and acknowledging that whilst EU migration has brought economic benefits to the UK, it has also created pressures, for example, relating to population churn within local communities.

The best way to secure public consent for free movement, in particular, and immigration in general, is to be clear about where those pressures manifest and find ways of dealing with them, consistent with keeping the UK within the EU.

This is neither an attempt at triangulation nor impractical idealism. It’s about making sure we understand the consequences of one of the biggest decisions this country has ever taken, and considering a different course.

Harvey Redgrave is a senior policy fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and director of strategy at Crest Advisory.