Ed Miliband campaigns before the Rochester and Strood by-election on October 23, 2014 in Chatham. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband paints immigration as the problem - it won't help him

The Labour leader should not acquiesce in the framing of immigration as a negative force. 

Today's PMQs saw Ed Miliband attack David Cameron on the traditionally Tory territory of the European Arrest Warrant and immigration. On the former, aware that up to 100 Conservative MPs are prepared to vote against opting back into the EAW, Miliband demanded to know when a vote would be held on a "vital tool that has helped to bring murderers, rapists and paedophiles to justice".

After attributing Cameron's delay to the Rochester and Strood by-election on 20 November (where the Tories stand to lose to Ukip defector Mark Reckless), he mischievously offered to use Labour's opposition day next week. In response, the PM sprung a surprise declaring that "There's only one problem with his second question. Which is we are going to have a vote, we're going to have it before the Rochester by-election. His questions have just collapsed." The logic, it would appear, is to get the rebellion out of the way before the likely defeat to Ukip, freeing Cameron to focus on unifying his party after the contest. Miliband shot back: "All I can say is I look forward to us walking through the lobby together to vote for the European Arrest Warrant, two parties working together in the national interest. Or maybe, Mr Speaker, given his backbenchers, one and a half parties working together in the national interest."

On immigration, Miliband derided Cameron for his failure to meet his 2010 pledge to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" a year and challenged him to reveal the level at which it now stands (243,000). The PM refused to do so, instead noting that net migration was down by a quarter from its peak under Labour and demanding that Miliband apologise for the last government's failure to impose transitional controls on eastern european citizens and the "search parties" that were sent out to look for extra migrants. 

An unruffled Miliband kept prodding away, declaring "Why doesn’t he just own up? He broke his promise" and noting that Cameron had said in 2010: "If we don't deliver our side of the bargain, vote us out in five years' time." One could justify Miliband's line of questioning as an attempt to hold the PM accountable for a shattered pledge; the problem for Labour is that anyone listening to him would have got the impression that it was a bad thing Cameron had missed his target. In fact, the reverse is true. Britain's economy and society are unambiguously better off for net migration having remained well above "tens of thousands" a year. It is for this reason, among others, that Labour has avoided making a similar commitment to reduce immigration - it's just too fearful to say so. 

As a progressive, Miliband should be alive to the dangers of "immigration" becoming a permanent pejorative. If newcomers are framed as the problem, it is Ukip, not Labour, that will look like the solution. But on the evidence of today's session, he is far too willing to accept - and even encourage - this trajectory. "Why doesn't he just admit it? On immigration, he has failed," Miliband declared in closing. Perhaps, but he should ask himself if he would really be happy with "success".

Meanwhile, away from the Commons, Nigel Farage contentedly chalks up another victory. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left