George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street for PMQs earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Osborne's unwise joke mars a solid debut

The Chancellor misjudged the mood by joking about "Bennites" in response to a question on suicide bombing. 

George Osborne, to his credit, is a politician with a sense of humour. But at his PMQs debut it worked against him. The First Secretary of State (standing in for the EU-detained David Cameron) began by rightly noting how "proud" Hilary Benn's father, Tony, would have been to see his son at the despatch box. But he followed this with an unwise, pre-scripted joke: "We’re relieved there’s no Benn in the leadership contest but plenty of Bennites" (a nod to Jeremy Corbyn). After Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, had asked him a sober question on reports of Britain's youngest suicide bomber, that line fell like a lead balloon. One of the most crucial qualities at PMQs is nimbleness. By failing to excise that joke from his script, Osborne failed in this regard. 

Benn smartly denied the Chancellor the chance to deploy his favourite attack lines by devoting his six questions to national security and the Mediterranean refugee crisis, rather than the economy. Osborne's answers were solid enough (there were no further gaffes) but this was not territory on which the potential next Tory leader could dazzle. The closest thing to a flashpoint came when he challenged Labour to confirm its support for the government's new Extremism Bill. In response to the SNP's Angus Robertson, who asked whether the Chilcot report had been delayed until next year, Osborne replied that "it has been a long time coming and people I think are running out of patience" before recalling the "cross-party alliance between the SNP and the Conservatives to set up that inquiry earlier than it was". Robertson, unsurprisingly, was in no mood to build bridges, reminding the Chancellor that he and Cameron voted for the Iraq war.  It was only towards the end of session that Osborne finally won the chance to boast about today's jobs and wages figures in response to planted Tory questions.

Aside from his ill-judged "Bennites" gag (which will be cited as evidence of his "nasty" streak), nothing today will have harmed Osborne's chances of succeeding Cameron, even if little will hae advanced him. But the simple fact that it was Osborne at the dispatch box gives him an advantage over his leadership rivals. Like Gordon Brown before him, a politician he resembles in so many respects, he will have more opportunities to make himself the "inevitable" successor. 

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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