We learned that a pilot scheme to fast-track incoming tourists last summer had allowed Britain’s border controls to slip so far that visiting bombers and convicted sex-criminals were being greeted at Heathrow with high-fives, goody-bags and a slice of Theresa May’s blueberry tart. Or so it seemed.
Worse still, a suspended UKBA official, Brodie Clark, had contradicted the Home Secretary’s statement and was threatening her with unfair dismissal proceedings. Useful stuff for Labour. The image of Al Qaeda flash-mobs dancing through the Nothing-to-Declare gate at Terminal 5 is emotive and politically dangerous.
Miliband’s first question — ‘how many entered the UK under the relaxed controls system?’ — elicited a reply from Cameron so crammed with detail that Miliband couldn’t pick out the right bit to attack him with. So he just furrowed his brow and tutted. ‘It’s simply not good enough,’ he sighed irritably. This is one of his favourite bleats at PMQs. And it always makes him sound like a Premier Inn customer whose second omelette has come back from the kitchen even colder than the first.
Cameron took advantage. He announced that his government’s groovy new laid-back border controls had been a soaraway success. More forged documents had been seized, he said. The number of immigrants arrested had risen by a tenth. And get this. ‘Fire arms seizures were up by 100 per cent!’ He made it all sound like a cunning plan. Get the bad guys to believe they aren’t going to be searched and they take out their guns and wave them around at the airport. Then you pounce.
Cameron added that he wouldn’t accept lectures from a party that ‘trebled immigration.’ Ed Miliband, now floundering so badly that he had nothing to cling to but his self-righteousness, scolded the prime minister for overseeing ‘a fiasco’. Which he then promoted to ‘a complete fiasco’. And he gave this innocuous slur a peculiar rhetorical emphasis, as if convinced that it carries some magical Tory-withering toxin, like ‘sleaze’ or ‘back to basics’ or ‘John Redwood for leader.’
Encouraged by Miliband’s wet-sponge attack, Cameron highlighted another Labour failing on border security. ‘They let in everyone from eastern Europe with no transitional controls.’ Ed was down to his final weapon. The killer statistic — so often lethal against Cameron. ‘Upcoming cuts will lead to how many staff leaving the border agency?’ he asked. The gleaming dart sailed towards the bulls-eyes and bounced straight back off the board, spiking Miliband in the foot. ‘By the end of this parliament,’ said Cameron smoothly, ‘there’ll be 18,000 working for the agency. The same number as in 2006, when the Opposition Leader was sitting in the Treasury determining the budgets.’
Crumpled, poor Mr Miliband burbled through a rice-paper list of generic insults. ‘Broken promises, blame everyone else, shambolic government, out of touch prime minister.’ He was back to Ed Nauseam again. He sounded like Action Man when you pull the string out of his back.
Backbench questions were dominated by poppy rage. Two members asked the PM about FIFA’s ‘outrageous’ decision to ban the home nations from commemorating the war-dead with poppies on their shirts at this weekend’s fixtures. ‘The whole country,’ said Cameron, ‘is baffled and angry at this appalling decision.’ The niftiest FIFA-bashing formula came from Tracey Crouch, (Con, Chatham) who linked the issue to the legendary England-Germany football match in No Man’s Land in 1914 (which, btw, my contemporary chronicle of the Western Front, written in 1916, records as a 3-2 win for the Germans).