PMQs verdict: Cameron shames himself with ‘bunch of migrants’ comment
It was one of those statements which was as much about the tone as it was about the content.
Jeremy Corbyn was using PMQs to push David Cameron on Google's derisory tax payment. It wasn't going very well. Cameron was retaliating by highlighting the fact the company paid no tax at all under Labour. He made a couple of tolerable jokes. Corbyn was reading from a piece of paper. It was shaping up to be a Cameron win.
Probably that's what did it. The prime minister was enjoying himself. He let himself go. And alarmingly, a bit of his true character came out. It was laughable to imagine Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell taking on Google, he told MPs. "They met with the unions and gave them flying pickets," he said. "They met with the Argentineans and they gave them the Falkland Islands." And then he moved on to Corbyn's visit to the camps in Calais and Dunkirk last weekend. "They met with a bunch of migrants in Calais and they said they could all come to Britain."
And there it was, out in the open. It wasn't just what he said, it was the way he said it. The emphasis on "bunch" was full of disdain. Once upon a time it was a "swarm" of migrants. Now it's a "bunch". The language Cameron uses about the refugees trying to reach Europe is routinely dehumanising. But in this case the harsh edge to his voice gave the game away entirely.
It was more than an unforced error. It revealed how the prime minister really thinks. We hear a lot about his compassionate centrist feelings, how he is slowly trying to turn the Tories away from their nastiness. But the real emotional tenor of the prime minister seemed to be laid bare by that comment and the manner in which it was spoken.
Thousands of women and children are living in filthy conditions in the Calais and Dunkirk camps, in winter conditions, in mud and rain. There are 4,000 people in the Calais Jungle, and 3,000 in Dunkirk, but they have just 30 toilets and two drinking water stations. They are dirt poor, hungry and cold. They are fleeing something even worse: persecution and war.
As 25-year-old Iraqi Jutiyar told IB Times earlier this month:
"Hell on earth is here. We pray to God to stop the rain."
But to the prime minister they are "a bunch of migrants". His pretence of cautious generosity over taking in Syrian refugees suddenly seemed utterly flimsy and false. One got the sense of his real voice. "A bunch of migrants."
Corbyn wasn't quick enough to pick up on it. We expected a fiery outburst of moral indignation. Instead, we got nothing. It passed him by completely. But for all his failures of attention or argument, the Labour leader looked like a moral giant next to the prime minister. He had made those camps his first foreign trips of the year. He at least had bothered to see them with his own eyes.
People had asked questions about when Cameron would go, given the Labour and Lib Dem leaders had now both visited. It seems unlikely he intends to go anytime soon. After all, they're just "a bunch of migrants".
Instead Cameron returned to speaking about the horrors of the Holocaust, on Holocaust memorial day. He announced a new memorial to go near parliament. It is easy to morally condemn the actions of the past. It takes nothing. Real courage involves standing up to moral outrage in the present. And there is arguably no more pressing moral question in all the world than the treatment of the refugees fleeing war in the Middle East, being met by stony indifference on Europe's shores.
That is a moral test the prime minister has categorically failed.
PMQs stats by Brandwatch
Total tweet volume: 18,000
Sentiment analysis shows the reaction to be largely negative with 73.6% negative and 26.4% positive
Main topics being mentioned include: "bunch of migrants", Google tax and bedroom tax
"Bunch of migrants” was the biggest topic with 1,914 mentions
Peak at 12:17pm with 414 mentions in a minute
The most popular tweets of the day:
The PM refers to "a bunch of migrants" in Calais at the Dispatch box just now. Inflammatory and unbecoming of his office. Shameful #PMQs
— Chuka Umunna (@ChukaUmunna) January 27, 2016
"A bunch of migrants." Describing innocent people fleeing persecution like that on today of all days. #PMQs
— Ellie Mae O'Hagan (@MissEllieMae) January 27, 2016
"Swarm", "bunch" David Cameron betrays disturbing attitudes in his choice of language. You could try "children", "people", "refugees" #pmqs
— Natalie Bennett (@natalieben) January 27, 2016