David Cameron delivers a speech to business leaders at a conference in the Old Granada TV Studios on January 8, 2015 in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Cameron's Green shield protects him from Miliband's TV debates attack

The PM's charge that the Labour leader was running scared of the Greens allowed him to avoid humiliation. 

The debate about the debates came to today's PMQs. After David Cameron's self-interested declaration that he won't participate unless the Greens are included, Ed Miliband wryly reminded him of what "a party leader" said in 2010: "It would have been feeble to find some excuse to back out. So I thought we've got to stick at this. We've got to do it." Cameron replied by merely restating his original position: "You cannot have two minor parties [the Lib Dems and Ukip] without the third minor party" (a line that prompted a cry of pain from Nick Clegg). He added: "So I put the question to him, why is he so frightened of debating the Green Party?"

It was, as Miliband later said, "a pathetic excuse". But it was enough for Cameron to make it through the session without humiliation. To the PM's charge that he was "chicken" when it comes to the Greens, Miliband reasonably replied that it was up to the broadcasters who they invite. But this sidestep, avoiding the direct question of whether he thinks the Greens should be included, allowed Cameron to score some points.

The Labour leader delivered the best line when he declared in his final question: "In the words of his heroine, Lady Thatcher, he is frit." But Cameron revealed his calculation when he responded by changing the subject to the economy: "He can't talk about unemployment because it's coming down. He can't talk about growth and the economy because it's going up. He can't talk about his energy price freeze because it's turned into a total joke. I have to say to him, Mr Speaker, the more time he and I can spend in a television studio and on television, the happier I will be. But please, if he's got any more questions left, ask a serious one." 

Cameron's accurate belief is that voters are largely uninterested in a process-centred row about the TV debates. As pollsters like to say, the issue lacks "salience". Few, if any, will change their votes based on whether or not Cameron takes part in TV debates. Scarred by the experience of 2010, when Nick Clegg stole his insurgent mantle, he has calculated that the political cost of avoiding the debates is lower than the cost of participating (and allowing Miliband and Nigel Farage to land easy hits on him). Today's PMQs showed that Cameron is relaxed about riding out this argument. 

Meanwhile, the Tories are now briefing that Cameron is prepared to take part in a five-way debate (the three main party leaders, Ukip and the Greens) and a head-to-head with Miliband, but not a three-way debate with the Labour leader and Clegg. The reason for this stance is easily identified: a debate between the two coalition leaders and Miliband would allow the latter to play the outsider - the role that so aided Clegg in 2010. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.