David Cameron attends a ceremonial welcome for The President Of United Mexican States at Horse Guards Parade on March 3, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Confident Cameron blusters through immigration and TV debates

Miliband's arguments were by far the stronger but at no point did the PM appear truly uncomfortable. 

David Cameron had the confidence of a man scenting victory at today's PMQs. The latest polls, showing the Tories ahead, meant he was in boisterous, remorseless form. Ed Miliband sought to pin him down on his failure to meet his promise to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" a year (of which he once declared: "If we don't deliver our side of the bargain, kick us out in five years") and his refusal to commit to the TV debates. But Cameron simply blustered through it at all. Miliband's arguments were by far the stronger but at no point did the PM appear truly uncomfortable. 

On immigration, he declared: "There are two reasons for high migration, one is the growth of our economy and the other is that our benefits system allows people to access that benefits system straight away – I say let’s keep the strong economy and change the benefits system, he wants to keep the benefits system and trash the economy!" As Miliband pressed him on his "no ifs, no buts" promise, Cameron simply listed all the pledges the Tories had met. It was shamelessly evasive but also a reminder of how much easier the better economic news has made these encounters for him. 

He was similarly shameless in the case of the TV debates. Challenged by Miliband to commit to them, he simply replied: "We’re having a debate now" (the traditional riposte of every PM until Gordon Brown). Not even he seemed convinced by his later declaration that he wanted them to happen "before the election" (that is, before the start of the short campaign on 30 March). Never have the debates appeared more doomed. As Labour sources briefed after the exchanges: “Behind the scenes Cameron’s team are doing everything they can to scupper the negotiations and sink the debates.”

As so often, Cameron couldn't resist a jibe at Ed Balls (a man with whom he is peculiarly obsessed) but this time at least he had a half-decent joke prepared. "He told us he was a long, slow burn," he said in reference to Balls's bedroom habits. "But I have to say the only thing lying in ashes is Labour’s economic credibility." 

One final point worth noting from today's session was Cameron's refusal to rule out again raising tuition fees. Asked by Labour's Seema Malhotra to do so, he did not even offer a token "no plans" assurance. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Daily Mail
Show Hide image

Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle