The Lib Dems cave in to Osborne over £10bn welfare cuts

Chancellor secures agreement of Clegg's party for £10bn of further welfare cuts in 2015-16.

Ahead of George Osborne's speech to the Conservative conference, the big announcement is that the Chancellor has secured the agreement of Iain Duncan Smith and the Lib Dems to a further £10bn of welfare cuts in 2015-16 on top of the £18bn of cuts already announced. In a joint article for the Daily Mail, Osborne and Duncan Smith write:

[A]s the Treasury illustrated at the time of the last Budget, if the rate of reductions in departmental budgets in the next spending review period is to be kept the same as the current rate, then the welfare budget would have to be reduced by more than £10billion by 2016-17.

We are both satisfied that this is possible and we will work together to find savings of this scale. All of this will require some tough choices, but those choices will be guided by clear principles and a vision of what the welfare system should be.

The cuts are likely to include:

-The abolition of housing benefit for the under-25s.

-A two-year freeze in most benefits.

-A limit on benefits paid to families with more than two or three children.

Nick Clegg previously insisted that the Lib Dems would not sign up to further welfare cuts without the introduction of some form of wealth or property tax. But with the Chancellor having already ruled out a "mansion tax" or higher council tax bands, it remains unclear what Clegg's party will receive in return for consenting to another attack on the poorest. One possibility is that the coalition will again increase the top rate of capital gains tax and raise stamp duty on multi-million properties.

The move will also put further pressure on Labour to say whether, if elected, it would stick to Osborne's spending plans for 2015-16 or adopt its own alternative proposals.

Chancellor George Osborne at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.