Ed Miliband speaking at his weekly press conference in October Source: Getty Images
PMQs was a disappointment. Few jokes, even fewer good lines – and no “gotcha” questions from Ed Miliband. Bizarrely, the Labour leader decided to devote all his six bites of the cherry to the ongoing border control row – despite the fact that, at the time of writing, Yvette Cooper has just kicked off a Labour opposition-day debate on the subject. And despite the fact that the eurozone is in meltdown, Italy’s cost of borrowing has hit a new record and economic armageddon seems to be right round the corner. Oh, and despite the fact that Miliband didn’t seem to be equipped with a set of killer questions. With Cooper sitting behind him, the Labour leader began with:
Can the Prime Minister tell us how many people entered the UK under the Home Secretary’s relaxed border controls?
Cameron dodged the question, preferring to reel off a list of statistics (“The figures I do have are that the number of people arrested was up by 10 per cent…”).
Later, Miliband asked:
Can he now confirm how many UK border staff are going to be cut under his government?
To which Cameron, having prepared for this particular question, responded by pointing out that there would still be 18,000 employees at the end of this parliament: “The same number as in 2006 when he [Miliband] was sitting in the Treasury and determining the budget”. Ouch.
It was left to Labour MP Chris Leslie, later in the session, to provide a more challenging and interesting intervention, when he called on the Prime Minister to publish all the relevant Home Office documents on orders given to the UK Border Agency over the summer. Cameron didn’t really have an answer (“All these issues will be aired…”) but was able to joke that Leslie was trying to make up for ground “lost” by Miliband in the earlier exchange.
Miliband did have a few good-ish lines:
A month ago, he [Cameron] gave a speech called Reclaiming our Borders. . . His Home Secretary was busy relaxing our borders.
He has been the Prime Minister for 18 months He cant keep saying it has nothing to do with him. It’s his responsibility.
He also provided the Commons with a potentially-damning quote from the Home Secretary, from her opposition days:
I’m sick and tired of government ministers who simply blame other people when things go wrong.
I suspect May was squirming in her seat. Overall, however, what was striking was the Prime Minister’s unflinching, wholehearted support for his Home Secretary throughout PMQs. As he pointed out, in his exchange with the Leader of the Opposition:
The simple fact is that the head of the UK border agency, Rob Whiteman. . . he said this: ‘Brodie Clark admitted to me on the 2 November that on a number of occasions this year he authorized his staff to go further than ministerial action. I therefore suspended him from his duties. . . It is unacceptable that one of my senior official went further than what was approved.’
He also told the Commons that he backed the “suspension” of Clark (who has denied Theresa May’s claims).
We can assume then that the PM has been well-briefed by May and is convinced that she hasn’t done anything wrong – and, crucially, can survive this particular political crisis. Otherwise, I suspect, he would have hung her out to dry. As Sunday Telegraph political editor Patrick Hennessy noted on Twitter:
Contrast Cam’s support for May – wants to cut immigration – with him saying Fox “has done” a good job at #PMQs before Fox quit
Cameron was also able to end on a high by once again quoting Maurice Glasman, the Blue Labour peer, ally and adviser to Miliband, who said earlier this year that Labour “lied” about immigration.
The Labour leader might have been thinking to himself, “With friends like these. . .”