PMQs review: the problem for Miliband is that the numbers are moving in Cameron's favour

In politics, trajectory is everything. The return of growth and falling unemployment means that Miliband now struggles to discomfort the PM.

So long as growth was falling and unemployment was rising, Ed Miliband could comfortably secure victory at PMQs by declaring that David Cameron had failed on the economy. The problem for Miliband and Labour is that the numbers are now moving in the right direction. Economically speaking, there may be little difference between a growing economy and a stagnant one, but politically speaking, there is all the difference in the world.

As a result, it has become much harder for Miliband to discomfort Cameron. Today's session was a wounding one for the Labour leader, with the PM landing blow after blow and Miliband falling back on the old charge of "complacency". Cameron replied, rather effectively, that "real complacency is promising to end boom and bust". Later, Miliband declared that it was George Osborne who "choked off the recovery" in 2010 but if a week is a long time in politics, that is now ancient history. 

Miliband went on to point out that wages had fallen in real terms for 38 of the 39 months that Cameron had been Prime Minister (the one exception being April 2013 when deferred bonuses were paid out to benefit from the cut in the top rate of tax). But the problem for him is that he has yet to clearly explain how Labour would improve living standards. Cameron was able to quote Alistair Darling's remark that he was "waiting to hear" what the party had to say on the economy. The other danger for Labour is that is now not inconceivable that wages could move decisively ahead of prices before the election. 

While at times veering into Flashman mode, Cameron's one-liners meant he had the Tory backbenches behind him today. He declared that Miliband's speeches were "so poor" that "it's hard to know when he's finished" and concluded (in reference to the TUC): "he promised us Raging Bull, he gave us Chicken Run" (a prize to whichever Tory scripted that). 

Miliband's strongest moment came when he referenced Michael Gove's comments on foodbanks ("It's often as a result of some decisions that have been taken by those families which mean that they are not best able to manage their finances.") and asked the coalition frontbench: "have you ever tried living on £150 a week?" But it says much about Cameron's increased confidence, that he didn't even break a sweat. 

David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby to listen to the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.