Six months after Cameron said there was a “swarm of people” crossing the Mediterranean to seek a better life in the UK, the prime minister used similar language in exchanges at the weekly session of prime minister’s questions.
The Labour leader wrote to the prime minister to complain: “I have to say I found it shameful that you referred to the people in those camps as ‘a bunch of migrants’, escalating the tensions on such a serious issue.
“It is clear that many are fleeing conflict and human rights abuses that you and I cannot begin to imagine. Such dismissive language and tone demeans people’s suffering and demeans the office of prime minister.”
During their weekly commons clash, Cameron had sought to to portray Corbyn as a figure on the political margins by highlighting a series of Labour’s recent interventions.
Pointing at the Labour leader and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, Cameron said: “The idea that those two right honourable gentlemen would stand up to anyone in this regard is laughable. Look at their record over the last week.
“They met with the unions and gave them flying pickets. They met with the Argentinians; they gave them the Falkland Islands. They met with a bunch of migrants in Calais; they said they could all come to Britain. The only people they never stand up for are the British people and hardworking taxpayers.”
Labour MPs said that Cameron’s dismissive remarks marked a return to his so-called Flashman tactics at prime minister’s questions. Flashman was the school bully in Tom Brown’s School Days.
Chuka Umunna, the former shadow business secretary, described the remarks as inflammatory and unbecoming of his office. Mary Creagh, a former Labour leadership hopeful, spoke of “dehumanising language”.
Lisa Doyle, the Refugee Council’s head of advocacy said: “When we are facing the greatest refugee crisis of our time, it is disappointing the prime minister is using flippant remarks to score political points.
“We have all seen the pictures of the desperate conditions people are living in across Europe, including just miles from the UK’s border. The prime minister should be showing political leadership and work with other European countries to ensure that people can live in safety and dignity.”
Steve Symonds, the refugee and migrant rights programme director for Amnesty International, said: “David Cameron’s ‘bunch of migrants’ are people, many of whom are fleeing conflict or persecution by their governments or armed groups like Islamic State, now living in utterly appalling conditions just across the Channel. Language like this is insulting and needs to stop.
“Instead, the UK must urgently step up and share responsibility for refugees, including by permitting British citizens and refugees in the UK to be reunited with their loved ones who are currently subjected to smugglers, squalor and life-threatening journeys.”
In his letter, Corbyn said that Britain should do more to ensure that people should not have to live in the “abject squalor” of the Calais and Dunkirk camps. The Labour leader called on the prime minister to agree to an urgent review of the EU’s Dublin regulations, under which asylum seekers are meant to apply in the first EU country in which they arrive.
Corbyn wrote: “The reality is that Dublin III is not working on the ground in Calais or Dunkirk. Will you commit the government to an urgent review of how Dublin III is working in practice and detail the steps the government is taking to ensure lawful family reunion in the UK can take place?”
A spokesperson for the prime minister said: “The point the PM was making was that he very strongly disagrees with the approach that Labour are now taking, which is to allow people from Calais into Britain, to open the doors to migrants. That will only make the situation in Calais much worse. It will produce a huge draw to Calais.
“No country in Europe has done more to help migrants affected by the conflict in Syria. We’ve given nearly £1.2bn [to agencies dealing with the crisis] and that is going to food, shelter and education for hundreds of thousands of people in refugee camps.”
Asked whether the prime minister thought he had used appropriate language, his spokesperson said: “The prime minister thinks that the key thing here is to get the policies right. That’s what the people of Britain are really concerned about.”
Yvette Cooper, the former shadow home secretary, raised the prime minister’s remarks with the speaker on a point of order. Cooper said that the remarks were particularly insensitive on Holocaust Memorial day as she asked whether it would be right for the commons to call on the prime minister to withdraw his comments.
John Bercow said he empathised with Cooper but Cameron’s use of language was neither disorderly nor unparliamentary. The speaker said: “ I completely identify and empathise with her observations about the Holocaust Memorial day, which she and I on other occasions have marked at events together, so I take what she says extremely seriously.”
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