PMQs verdict: Cameron cheapens himself with hypocritical anti-racist attack

If you care at all about anti-semitism in the Labour party, or Islamophobia in the Conservative party, you’ll likely have been horrified by the hypocrisy on display at PMQs today. If politics is about living up to the historical moment, David Cameron failed utterly, showing himself to be more interested in Tory election results than the toxic politics which overtook British politics last week.

The Tory leader saw an opening and he took it. He knew that Jeremy Corbyn had plenty of weak spots on the issue of anti-semitism. Of all the Labour leader’s questionable comments over the years, he chose his statement that Hamas and Hezbollah were "friends". Corbyn says this was meant in a "collective" way as part of a meeting in parliament to further the peace process.

Taken alone, that’s reasonable. It is hard to imagine any way forward in the Middle East without these organisations having some sort of role. But Corbyn’s comments are part of a web of statements which raise questions about his commitment to fighting anti-Semitism and specifically to rooting out anti-semitism in the Stop the War elements of his party, which disproportionately support his leadership.

Regardless of any of that, Cameron had his bone and wouldn’t let go. He actually succeeded in turning the question structure of PMQs on its head and being the one who scrutinised the leader of the opposition. Corbyn needed to make clear he did not support Hamas, he said, "and he needs to do it today".

Corbyn - shockingly weak today, even by his own standards - said there was no place for anti-Semitism in our society and that we all "have a duty to oppose it". He made clear that he’d set up an inquiry headed by former Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti. "The points he was making earlier relate to a discussion I was having” for the peace process, he added. "I absolutely do not approve of those organisations."

But it didn’t matter what he said, Cameron wouldn’t let go. "Hamas and Hezbollah believe in killing Jews," Cameron said. "Withdraw that they’re your friends." Question after question saw Cameron twist the structure of PMQs and demand Corbyn go further in disowning Hamas, although he had already done so.

Gradually it became clear. This wasn’t about clearing up Labour of anti-Semitism. It was about making Labour bleed.

With polling stations opening in less than 24 hours, the prime minister wanted the words 'Hamas' and 'Labour' to share as many sentences as possible. Finally, Corbyn managed to switch the spotlight around and ask questions about the Tories’ own campaign for City Hall, which has seen Zac Goldsmith regularly raise unfounded connections between Sadiq Khan and Islamic extremists. The clear message of the Tory campaign is: You can’t trust a Muslim to be mayor. Even a Muslim as utterly and unquestionably moderate as Khan.

"I’d invite him to think carefully about his party in the London elections," Corbyn said. "The way they are systematically smearing my friend the member for Tooting [Khan]."

Of course, Cameron was not going to disavow the Tory mayoral election campaign just before polls open. But instead of sidestepping it, he doubled down. "There is a pattern of behaviour with the honourable member for Tooting," he said. And suddenly we were back where we were two weeks ago, with Cameron making comments about the people Khan has "shared a platform with".

Last time, it all unravelled instantly. Suliman Gani, the man Khan had shared a platform with, was in fact a Tory supporter. He had turned against Khan over - of all things - gay marriage. Oh and he’d "shared a platform" with Conservatives before too. Cameron’s claim that he supported Islamic State appeared to be completely false. Certainly Downing Street could not substantiate it and Cameron declined to repeat the allegation outside of the palace of Westminster, where he is protected from a legal challenge by parliamentary privilege.

Today, that last allegation was tweaked slightly. "He stood on a platform with people who wanted an Islamic state," Cameron said. So he didn’t support IS and was instead being accused of - there it is again - "sharing a platform" with people who believe in Islamic states in general. Downing Street is still cynically manipulating the vague distinction between the group Islamic state and the notion of an Islamic state. The vagueness of that distinction is exactly what the terror group likes to capitalise on. It is disappointing that, after demonstrating such righteous indignation over the BBC’s use of the name Islamic State, that is a vagueness Cameron is also prepared to use to his advantage.

But his cynicism is so much worse than that. The Tory London message is that any Muslim, no matter how loyal to Britain, no matter how moderate, no matter how civil in their discourse or secular in their convictions, will be dubbed an extremist if they try to engage with mainstream Westminster politics. The Tory campaign is a locked door, held fast against Muslims in British political life. It directly validates the rhetoric of the extremists because it says: There is no acceptance of you in the mainstream. The Tories are the ones playing into the extremists hands.

And by making his concerns about Labour anti-Semitism so obviously party political, Camron will have discouraged those in the oppositon from actually doing something about it.

The prime minister is completely uninterested in the reality of racism in Britain, or in the Tory party, or Labour. These are just cheap, short-term political games, intended for Friday morning election results rather than the long-term interests of the country, He doesn’t care what he breaks along the way.

Corbyn has been slow to the point of complicity in addressing anti-Semitism in the Labour party. Cameron has allowed the Tory campaign for City Hall to become utterly Islamophobic and a recruitment aid to extremists.

They were both pitiful today: cynical, irresponsible and painfully short-sighted. Of the two, Cameron was by far the worst culprit. But no-one watching today’s session could have emerged with much faith in the British political class to drag themselves out of this poisonous mess.

Ian Dunt is the editor of

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

Mea culpa? Why pairing should have been mentioned more prominently in this piece

So I’ve come under a bit of flak for this piece, which suggests the refugee vote last night was lost because not enough Labour MPs turned up.

OK, so the piece is written in a style which is a little look-how-many-MPs-turn-up-to-debate-their-salary and probably I should have tuned that aspect down a bit. The headline was a misjudgement on my end. It is simplified to the point of unhelpfulness. 

However, this isn’t just a mea culpa. A few people online are suggesting I’m playing down ‘pairing’ - an informal parliamentary procedure where MPs on both sides of a vote agree to balance out each other’s absence - in order to attack Labour.

Actually pairing is not quite as simple as all that. A party decides when it wishes to do pairing. It does not do so when the vote is very politically important.

For instance, Labour did not allow pairing on the votes over tuition fees or the bedroom tax. The fact that pairing is allowed for a vote demonstrates the relative importance attached to it by the party which does it. Given that this vote involved saving 3,000 child refugees from these conditions, that is a reasonable point to make.

It’s also argued that not allowing pairing just means you have to drag lots of sick or bereaved people into the Commons for a vote, or cancel a bunch of trips overseas. The argument runs like this: As an MP you inform the whips of your absence a few days before a vote. So ending pairing just means the Tories would have dragged their MPs back too.

That’s true, as far as it goes. But pairing is undeniable useful to the government. It means you can take a potential rebel in your own ranks and say: take the day off. No need to come in. Stay in your constituency. You can do that knowing that they will be paired and neutralised on the other side. It means you don’t need to keep your eyes on them on the day of the vote and prevents any opportunities for last-minute Damascene conversions. Basically, it makes life easier for the governing party.

I made a error not going into those details in that news story. I should have done it as a blog and teased them all apart. It was a quite significant error, because it threatens to mislead rather than inform the reader. That’s something we always try to avoid on this site.

But the use of pairing is not quite as simple as many people online make out. Labour were asked not to allow pairing on this vote by the Lib Dems. Would doing so have won the vote? It’s hard to say. Probably not. But Labour’s decision to allow pairing is worthy of mention on its own right, especially given the (rightly) high flying rhetoric coming from MPs on the Labours benches last night.

Alone, hungry & frightened: the truth about the child refugees Britain refuses to help

Last night MPs voted by 294 votes to 276 to block plans to help 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe. Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems voted to help, but the Tory party successfully whipped MPs into staying in line, saying that a vote to help refugees in Europe would encourage more of them to make the journey from the Middle East and North Africa.

Here are the the main things we know about refugee children in Europe, as taken from a survey of 870 inhabitants of the Calais Jungle by Refugee Rights Data Project.

They are alone

A majority (59.7%) of children in the Calais camp are unaccompanied by any adult. Just 6.7% are with a parent. Just under 20% are with one or more siblings, and 3.4% are with another relative - usually an uncle.

People often ask why refugees go to the camp in France instead of claiming asylum somewhere else in Europe. For many of these children it’s because they have a family member in the UK. That’s the case for 44.5% of the children in Calais. Britain actually has a legal duty under the Dublin regulation to take in asylum seekers with relatives here, but it is not fulfilling it.

They are scared

The children face many daily threats, primarily from French police, French citizens and other inhabitants of the camps. Some 61% say they "never feel safe".

The police appear to be the worst culprits. Some 89.6% of children have experienced police violence. Most of them had been exposed to tear gas, often several times a week. Just under half have been arrested. Some are kept in detention for months, some just for minutes. They return to the camp with tales of being kept in cold rooms without food for days on end, or of having all their hair cut off.

French citizens are also feared. Thirty-six per cent of children in the camp say they’ve been physically abused by citizens and 25.2% say they’ve been verbally abused.

They are escaping war

By far the most common country of origin is Afghanistan, with 47% of children in the camp originating there. It’s followed by Eritrea, (16.8%), Kuwait (7.6%) and then Syria, Iran, Iraq and Sudan.

They are hungry

Children in the camp are going hungry. Just 70.5% have access to food on a daily basis, while 73.8% say there isn’t enough to eat.

They are getting sick

Most of the children have been in the camp since last summer. The conditions are unsanitary and dangerous. Some 60.7% of them live in a shelter which leaks when it rains. Health problems are consequently rife, with 73.9% experiencing them since their arrival and 38.7% of them blaming the unhealthy environment they’re in.

Mental health problems are predictably common too, with many reporting they are suffering from anxiety and nightmares. This appears to be evidence of post-traumatic stress.

Now that the British government has refused to help, there are no plans to offer these children any assistance.

Ian Dunt is the editor of

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

Latest entries