By Alexander Mather, Consultant, London
If UKIP were to design their perfect week in the run-up to a by-election, it would probably look remarkably similar to the one we have just had. With the vote in Rochester and Strood now just under three weeks away, Europe, in the form of both the strengthening debate over immigration and the new £1.7 billion bill facing the Government, has dominated the political agenda this week.
On immigration the Prime Minister has faced a particularly tough past few days, with figures as varied as the Mayor of Calais and Nick Boles triggering new headaches and negative headlines for the Government. During her questioning by the Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday, Natacha Bouchart, the UMP Mayor for Calais, managed to score three quotes which will be seen as particularly embarrassing for Downing Street: explaining that the UK is a “soft touch” on immigration; its fencing efforts in Calais “make everybody laugh” and there are people “who are willing to die to come to England” – ouch! If that didn’t seem bad enough, Nick Boles, Minister for Skills and Equalities, admitted in a Total Politics interview that the Government will never be able to control immigration entirely so long as it is part of the EU, providing yet another gift to Nigel Farage in the process. Unsurprisingly, Ed Miliband decided to lead on this subject at this week’s PMQs and attempted to cause further embarrassment for Cameron over the European Arrest Warrant. In response, Cameron grabbed the opportunity to confirm that there would be a vote on this issue before the upcoming by-election.
Following last Friday’s news that the Government would have to pay back £1.7 billion to the European Union, the war of words between Cameron and the EU Commission intensified this week, with the Prime Minister announcing that he would not pay back “anything like” the required sum to “Eurocrats”. Continuing on the recent trend of European politicians embarrassing Downing Street, the German Ambassador to the UK urged the Government to pay the £1.7 billion in full, also describing claims that the bill was a punishment for economic success as “absurd”. To top it all off, the Ambassador warned the Government against attempting to tamper with the EU principle of free movement.
If one was to assume that the Government’s European woes would constitute a good week for Labour, one would be severely mistaken. Ed Miliband too has endured another troubling week, with Johann Lamont’s resignation as Scottish Labour leader and opinion polls showing potential wipe-out in Scotland prompting renewed questioning as to the quality of the Party’s leader. The race for Lamont’s replacement began in earnest with shadow international development secretary, Jim Murphy, indicating his intention to stand for the leadership against Lothian regional MSPs Neil Findlay and Sarah Boyack.
Meanwhile, away from the problems affecting the two main party leaders, this week has seen important legislative proceedings, with the Report Stage in the Lords of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill concluding and Committee Stage of the Consumer Rights Bill continuing. Additionally, Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, delivered a polished performance in front of the Health Select Committee on Tuesday, whilst Coalition frictions resurfaced on Thursday around drugs decriminalisation with Cameron and Clegg trading blows across the media outlets. Perhaps most notably however, Zac Goldsmith’s widely publicised amendment to the Government’s Recall of MPs Bill was defeated by 340 to 166 following a free vote in the Commons. Goldsmith’s proposals, which would have gone much further than the Government-backed plans, would have allowed voters to trigger a by-election if 5% of voters in a constituency signed a “notice of intent to recall” and 20% then signed a “recall petition”.
This week has been a chastening one for both the Conservative and Labour leaderships, and there are already signs that the Government is trying to shift the political focus back onto the economic recovery. However, as a result of this week’s news one can be sure that Nigel Farage’s Halloween treats of beer and cigarettes will taste even better than usual.