Labour goes on the attack with new Cameron poster

New poster mocks Tory election line, stating: "I'm cutting the NHS. Not the deficit."

With the Tories preparing to gather in Birmingham, the Labour attack machine has sprung into life with the launch of a new poster and a borrowing counter. Following her Q&A with Andy Burnham earlier this week, my colleague Caroline Crampton revealed that Labour was planning a parody of the famous "airbrushed" image of Cameron - and here it is.

The line "I'm cutting the NHS" is based on Treasury figures showing that since 2010, health spending has fallen from £105,073 million to £104,333 million in real terms, while the line "not the deficit" is based on the most recent borrowing figures from the ONS, which showed that borrowing so far this financial year was 21.8% (£10.6bn) higher than in the same period last year.

Labour states:

This means that in the first five months of the year the UK was borrowing:

o        £69.3 million more a day
o        £2.9 million more an hour
o        £48,112 more a minute
o        £802 more a second

In response, we can expect the Tories to point out that they have reduced the deficit by a quarter since coming to office (from £159bn in 2009-10 to £119.3bn in 2011-12), while arguing that the NHS figures are merely the result of an underspend, not a deliberate decision to cut.

But while George Osborne may have a good story to tell on the deficit at the moment (polling found that voters were more inclined to support the coalition's austerity measures when told that annual borrowing had fallen by a quarter), the disappearance of growth means that this trend will not continue. Forecasters expect the government to miss its deficit target for this year (£119.9bn) by as much as £30bn. For the first time since Osborne entered No. 11, borrowing is set rise in annual terms, a significant blow to his political narrative of "balancing the books". By 2015, the Tories hope, the situation will have improved, but for now, this is a powerful attack line for Labour.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.