Osborne is losing political control of the economic debate

The once mighty 'Plan A' is reduced to a pile of cold pasties.

In today’s Telegraph, Liam Fox has written a brisk précis of the analysis often heard on the right wing of the Tory party about why the economy isn’t growing. The problem, in the former Defence Secretary’s view, is a lack of rigour in pursuing supply side reforms.
 
Chiefly, that means aggressive labour market deregulation. The theory is that rules protecting employees’ rights are deterring companies from taking on staff. Relaxing those rules - making it easier to sack people - is thus supposed to lubricate private sector job creation. This was the essential thrust of a report commissioned last year by Downing Street from Adrian Beecroft, a venture capitalist (and Tory party donor).
 
The Beecroft report got bogged down in coalition warfare as Lib Dems briefed heavily against it – suggesting it was a shoddy piece of work with recommendations that were mostly peripheral to the task of rebooting the economy. Fox takes a swipe at Nick Clegg’s party for “intuitive left-wing opposition to supply side reform”.
 
It is worth recalling at this point what Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey said in a New Stateman interview on this subject recently.  (He was the employment minister at the time of the most ferocious rows over Beecroft):

I never bought the argument that our labour market was the most regulated there is. All the evidence shows we have one of the least regulated labour markets in the world.

One reason this issue ignites internal coalition tension is that it becomes a proxy for pro- and anti-European feeling. The right wing of the Conservative party sees the EU as an engine of pernicious bureaucracy and regulation. Eurosceptics put setting employment rules at the top of their list of powers to be “repatriated”. The Lib Dems are desperately trying to steer the government into a more consensual approach in Brussels and find all talk of repatriation unhelpful.
 
But there is a different political problem for David Cameron and George Osborne contained in Fox’s intervention. The news of a double dip recession has emboldened both the left and right in their conviction that the coalition’s current course is failing. Naturally, they have entirely different diagnoses and as a sense of urgency - bordering on panic – takes hold, that divergence will become more extreme. The great danger for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor (and, by association, for Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander) is that they will lose control of the economic debate entirely.
 
As the Tory backbenches get frothy about bolder supply side measures and deeper cuts, Labour bangs its Keynesian drum for a change of course in the opposite direction. That leaves Downing Street holding a bunch of discredited budget measures that no one thinks will make the blindest bit of difference to growth. Plan A is reduced to a pile of cold pasties.

 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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.