Is Cameron trying to buy the election?

Labour should check the figures before it adopts this line

It must count as some achievement to simultaneously attract the ire of Jack Straw and Simon Heffer. That's the position in which David Cameron finds himself this morning, with both, to varying degrees, accusing the Tory leader of attempting to buy the election.

Here's Straw:

At the same time that Mr Cameron tells the British people we face "austerity", he has ordered his party to fight the most expensive election campaign in British political history. It is an American-style campaign, costing millions, with wealthy suitors each paying £50,000 to join David Cameron's dining club, and British high streets covered with billboards bankrolled ultimately from Belize. Mr Cameron says the Conservatives have changed, but what we are seeing is an attempt by his party to buy the next general election.

And here's the Heff:

I am told that the budget for the forthcoming campaign has been agreed, and it will be £18m. How does that resonate with a country in the grip of austerity? What does it suggest about the party's understanding of the value of money? What if a second campaign had to be funded later in 2010? Given the circumstances, would a little more restraint not have been in order? Given, also, the very obvious mess that the government has made of the country, is it really going to take £18m to put that message across?

Should the Tories have amassed an £18m election war chest, it will be the most expensive campaign this country has seen. But not by much. At the 2005 election Labour spent a record £17,939,617 -- £87,000 more than the Tories' £17,852,240.

If Labour is to criticise Cameron with any credibility, it will have to run a fairly lean campaign itself. Given the state of the party's finances, it may be forced to do so.

Whether this line of attack will prove effective either way is doubtful. Next to the £850bn bank bailout and the £187bn deficit, £18m will appear a piffling sum to the voters. Attacking the size of the Tories' campaign budget may even prove a distraction from the related but separate issue of Lord Ashcroft's tax status.

In order to portray the Tory showing as insensitive and profligate, Gordon Brown would have to run a John Major-style soapbox campaign. Such an approach would complement Brown's hairshirt image and could even give Labour a chance to resurrect the effective slogan "Not flash, just Gordon". I'd be surprised if Labour strategists weren't considering this approach for the election.


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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.