PMQs review: Miliband keeps his cool and wins another NHS battle

The Labour leader refused to rise to Cameron's child benefit jibes and left the PM struggling to explain away the A&E crisis.

Even before Ed Miliband got to his feet at today's PMQs, David Cameron went on the attack over his U-turn on child benefit. Reminding Miliband that he had criticised the changes in his first-ever outing at the despatch box, Cameron derided Labour's "total and utter confusion" and quipped (in response to a question from Douglas Carswell on a recall bill): "I hope the leader of the opposition will recall his attack on child benefit". He topped that later with this line: "I know I've been in Ibiza but they've been taking policy-altering substances".

But Miliband, his zen-like calm on full display, refused to rise to Cameron's bait and challenged him over the new figures showing that A&E waiting times have reached a nine year high. As before, Cameron blamed Labour's 2004 decision to remove responsibility from GPs for out-of-hours care but Miliband was on strong ground, noting that waiting times fell between 2004 and 2010, that GPs' leader Clare Gerada had described this explanation as "lazy", and that doctors blamed the upheaval caused by the government's NHS reorganisation. The voters, weary of Cameron's excuses, are likely to side with Labour, which now enjoys a 15 per cent poll lead on health (compared to a Tory lead of 3 per cent in 2010).

Cameron, who has chosen to maintain the NHS ring-fence in the Spending Review, attempted to carve out a dividing line when he claimed that Labour would "cut the NHS", but it's worth noting that Miliband last month stated that a Labour government would protect the NHS. He told Nick Robinson: "We're not going to be cutting the health service, I'm very clear about that. We will always be protecting the health service and will always make it a priority." Labour won't allow the Tories such an easy chance to claim that they are "the party of the NHS".

When the Labour frontbench alerted Cameron to as much, he replied: "That's changed as well! We've got a new health policy! Honestly, there are so many U-turns they should be having a grand prix." But while politicians and journalists obsess over U-turns, the voters are more concerned with whether the party in question has the right policy (and the majority supported the child benefit cuts). If Labour's move on child benefit helps convince a sceptical public that it would be fiscally responsible in government then it will be Miliband who gains.

A more awkward moment came when Cameron, in response to a piece in today's Daily Mail reporting that half of the shadow cabinet now support an EU referendum, asked those who did to raise their hands. When none did, he declared: "the people's party doesn't trust the people". It is precisely for fear of this line of attack that the likes of Ed Balls and Jon Cruddas have urged Miliband to commit to holding a referendum after 2015. As we get closer to the vote on the Tories' EU referendum bill on 5 July, expect Cameron to take every opportunity to make hay with this divide. 

Ed Miliband at Prime Minister's Questions.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.