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9 September 2015

PMQs review: Harriet Harman presses David Cameron on refugees as she departs the stage

Labour's acting leader refused to be flattered by the PM's tribute to her. 

By George Eaton

Harriet Harman grimaced her way through David Cameron’s tribute to her at her final PMQs as Labour’s acting leader. Cameron rightly noted her remarkable 28 years of frontbench service and her role in pioneering women’s rights. “Although we haven’t always seen eye to eye, you have served your constituents, your party and this House with distinction from the front bench and I wish you well as you continue to serve this House and the country from the backbenches,” he ended. But Harman, a tribalist to the core, was unmoved. 

She went on to have a civil exchange with Cameron on the refugee crisis, avoiding the subject of the UK’s unprecedented drone strike. Pressed by Harman on how many refugees the government would accept in the first year (having pledged to take 20,000 by 2020), Cameron revealed that a meeting would be held on Friday of local authority and voluntary sector leaders to begin planning. Harman demanded that a figure be given to parliament in no more than a month. Cameron also repeated his refusal to join the EU resettlement programme on the grounds that “If all the focus is on redistributing quotas of refugees around Europe that won’t solve the problem and it sends a message that it’s a good idea to get on a boat and make the perilous journey.”

In response to Harman’s closing plea for Britain “not to be narrow” and “fearful of the outside world”, he replied: “I agree with every word of what she just said” and hailed the UK’s status as the only country which meets both Nato’s 2 per cent defence spending target and the UN’s 0.7 per cent aid spending target. He ended by saying that “hard military force” may be required to tackle the origins of the crisis. Conservative sources expect a vote to be held in early October on extending airstrikes against Isis to Syria if Tory whips judge that the numbers are there.

The SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson, one of the members of the new Intelligence and Security Committee, demanded that the committee be provided with “all relevant information” on the drone strike. Cameron replied that information would only be provided on “a retrospective basis” – “so there will not be current intelligence”. The other notable moment was a glacial exchange between the PM and his former leadership rival David Davis. The former shadow home secretary demanded to know whether the Wilson Doctrine, which prohibits the tapping of MPs’ phones, still applies. Cameron, who did not deign to look at the backbencher, merely replied: “I’ve got nothing to add to comments I’ve made about this before but I’m very happy to write to the Hon Member and set out the position.”

There was no sign of Jeremy Corbyn in the chamber but, rather poignantly, Harman was sat next to his leadership rival Yvette Cooper on the frontbench. Labour has had two acting female leaders (Margaret Beckett and Harman) but never a permanent one. Come Saturday, that record is still likely to stand. 

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