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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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