The defining moment of today’s PMQs came near the close of David Cameron’s exchanges with Jeremy Corbyn. After being repeatedly challenged by the Labour leader over Google’s derisory tax payment, he went on the offensive: “They met with the unions they gave them flying pickets, they met with the Argentinians they gave them the Falklands, they met with a bunch of migrants in Calais and said they could all come to Britain”.
It was the final line which provoked cries of outrage from the Labour benches. The Prime Minister had just demeaned refugees as “a bunch of migrants” (a remark reminiscent of Thatcher’s “swamped”). At first many assumed Cameron had misspoken. But read in context the line looks pre-scripted (“The Prime Minister was making a point about Labour’s immigration policy,” a No.10 spokesman said afterwards). Indeed, it looks like another “dead cat” to distract from a more troublesome political issue. During the general election, Michael Fallon’s attack on Ed Miliband for “stabbing his own brother in the back” got the Tories off the hook on non-doms. Today, Cameron’s remark, which he knows most of the public will sympathise with, offered him relief on Google.
Corbyn probed the PM well, noting the disparity between No.10’s response to the tax deal and George Osborne’s (“a major success” was how the Chancellor described it), and challenging him on whether he considered an effective tax rate of 3 per cent acceptable. Cameron responded with a volley of attacks on the last Labour government, declaring that he had “done more on tax evasion and tax avoidance” than they ever did. Corbyn can hardly be blamed for anything that happened under that administration but, perhaps mindful of his colleagues, declined the opportunity to distance himself. Indeed, he went further, boasting that the last Labour government collected more in corporation tax as a share of GDP than the present one (a stat challenged by the PM).
But with Cameron under some pressure, Corbyn unwisely changed the subject, devoting his final two questions to today’s bedroom tax court ruling and a UN report on the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. The opportunity to land a knockout blow was declined. But all anybody was talking about at the end was a “bunch of migrants”. And that’s just how Cameron wanted it.