Lord Ashcroft attacks Conservative poster as "juvenile"

Tory donor denounces anti-Labour poster as a "silly stunt".

If David Cameron was hoping that his recent appointment of Lord Ashcroft to the Privy Council would assuage the Conservative peer, it looks as if he was mistaken. Writing on ConservativeHome, the site he owns, the Tory donor has penned a vociferous critique of the Conservatives' latest poster, denouncing it as "daft" and "juvenile". He writes:

It is not clear how much the Conservative Party has paid M&C Saatchi to come up with the daft poster, unveiled over the weekend, depicting Ed Miliband and Ed Balls as gormless schoolboys under the slogan 'Labour Isn't Learning'. Nor do I know how much it cost to hire the ad van to drive the thing pointlessly around Manchester. What I do know is that if I had recently donated funds to the Tories I would be asking what on earth CCHQ thought it was doing with my money ...

... Like the ubiquitous 'Are You Thinking What We're Thinking?' campaign in 2005, which invited the simple response 'No', the declaration that 'Labour Isn't Learning' prompts people to wonder whether the Tories are themselves listening. It suggests we see the whole thing as a big game.

As Ashcroft suggests, the Tories' own economic record means votes are unlikely to be receptive to such partisan attacks. The country is mired a double-dip recession and, based on the most recent independent forecasts, George Osborne is set to borrow £191bn more than originally intended. If the Tories want to recover the ground they've lost, they should focus on adopting policies that produce growth, rather than recession. As Paul Krugman sagely observed in a recent essay for the New York Review of Books, "the economic strategy that works best politically isn’t the strategy that finds approval with focus groups, let alone with the editorial page of The Washington Post; it’s the strategy that actually delivers results." Until Osborne and David Cameron learn this lesson, there is little prospect of a Conservative recovery.

Conservative donor and former deputy party chairman Lord Ashcroft. 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.