Who Da Man . . .Date

The accusation that this government lacks a mandate is frequently thrown around – but what does it a

A new prime minister walked in to Downing Street on less than 50 per cent of the vote. A predecessor went on the TV and suggested he "do nothing hasty, sit down have a cup of tea and a think". He did the opposite. Before the door had been shut at No.10, he had implemented the first new policy. Swift, radical, decisive.

He didn't take it to parliament for approval. It wasn't in his party manifesto. The action he took would affect every lender, saver, pension holder, every private-sector employer. It probably deserved at least consultation, further consideration – perhaps, dare I suggest, a plan B to this audacious and radical policy shift.

The year was 1997; the PM Tony Blair; the policy a long-held Lib Dem belief that the Bank of England should be made independent; the predecessor James Callaghan.

Did he have a mandate to do that? Well, he had a significant majority. Did that mean he had a mandate to do something that would affect so many, having failed to fight for it in the election? Well, probably not, but I don't remember an outcry at the time. Instead, it was perceived as a stroke of genius. Indeed, recent Labour memoirs tussle to prove whose idea it was in the first place.

So what about now? Is there a mandate for dealing with the structural deficit? Every time I was on air during the election, I whinged about the danger the three main parties were facing because of their critical lack of detail on dealing with the structural deficit. The result would inevitably be a lack of "mandate". In various studios, senior tacticians from the other parties pointed out that any mention of how specifically to deal with the structural deficit would be electoral suicide. And of course, sadly, they were right.

The small crumb of comfort that I could find was that the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that the Lib Dems were the "least worst" when it came to lack of detail on how they would cut.

All three parties were united in the same message. Which was to halve the structural deficit. As the chancellor, George Osborne, writes in the Guardian today:

The Labour leadership claims it would stick to Alistair Darling's plan to halve the deficit in four years, but day after day it opposes the spending cuts that requires. The Darling plan contains £14bn of cuts this coming financial year – just £2bn less than our plan. Yet with just five weeks to go until April we know everything about the cuts Labour opposes but nothing about the cuts it supports.

The question then became one of pace, but it was never about scale.

When I hear the regular accusation about lack of a mandate, I have some sympathy. No, really – I do. But that raises several questions. How is it defined? Is a written constitution the only way of defining it? Until a government is elected with over 50 per cent of the vote, does it lack a mandate? Is a simple parliamentary majority sufficient? Or do we need a better voting system to reflect people's wishes more accurately?

In Blair's autobiography, he struggled with definitions of mandate following the 2005 general election:

I couldn't get the argument heard . . . It found insufficient echo among other Labour speakers and very little within the media. The result was a campaign and mandate that meant different things to different people. I was completely certain: the manifesto and the mandate was one for New Labour, but the absence of serious policy discussion meant there was no sense of that being so.

For the last few weeks, I have tweeted asking for definitions of mandate. Replies have come back saying predominantly "not what this government is doing", or "the scale of reform and the pace of change do not have any support'. But equally, I would argue that what is clear is that there was absolutely no mandate for keeping Labour in power.

I guess the most useful response so far was that "it is a date between two men".

Any better offers? Or is this going to be a much-used, much-misunderstood phrase over the next few years?

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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.