Robert “Budget Is Regressive” Chote heads for the OBR

It could all end in tears for Cameron and Osborne.

Is the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) "independent"? It's a question my colleague David Blanchflower has been asking for several weeks now in his economics columns in the NS.

Today's appointment of Robert Chote of the Institute for Fiscal Studies as the new head of the OBR -- replacing the outgoing Sir Alan Budd -- will go a long way towards reassuring the likes of Blanchflower. Chote has a reputation as a freethinker and is considered impartial and credible.

He has said that if his appointment is confirmed (by Andrew Tyrie's Treasury select committee), the OBR will present its judgements "without fear or favour".

Chote joins his wife, Sharon White, who is a policy director at the Department for International Development, inside Cameron's big tent -- along with the likes of Will Hutton, Frank Field, Alan Milburn and, of course, the Liberal Democrats.

But here's a question: will Chote continue to describe June's emergency Budget as "regressive" after he takes up the reins at the OBR? It might be a tad awkward for Cameron, Osborne, Clegg et al if he does.

In fact, I suspect that Dave's attempts to erect a "big tent" might backfire on him in the same way as Gordon Brown's "government of all the talents", or "goats", did.

Meanwhile, over on the Telegraph blog, James Kirkup imagines the response of our former PM to news of this particular coalition appointment:

Mr Chote will now become a senior member of the wider Treasury establishment, only a few years after a certain Gordon Brown vacated HMT. It's an open secret that the former PM was not a fan of Mr Chote. The oft-repeated story that Mr Brown engineered Mr Chote's removal as economics editor of the FT in the late 1990s is overstated. But it's certainly the case that Mr Brown frequently referred to Mr Chote using robust language, calling him things that cannot be repeated on a family blog . . . today, we can only imagine Mr Brown's feelings.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.