CommentPlus: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers.

1. An assault on unions is an attack on democracy itself (Guardian)

The Conservatives' attempt to smear the trade unions is an absurd attempt to turn the current crisis of corporate legitimacy into a crisis of union legitimacy, argues Seumas Milne.

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2. Unite doesn't run Labour -- it can't even run itself (Independent)

Meanwhile, the Independent's Steve Richards says the belief that Unite has seized control of the Labour Party ignores the truth: that this is a union which rarely speaks or acts with one voice.

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3. Stand by, and watch 1992 happen all over again (Times)

Next week's Budget is as much a test for the Tories as one for the government, writes Anatole Kaletsky. If David Cameron and George Osborne misjudge their response, they could scupper their chances in the same way as Neil Kinnock and John Smith destroyed Labour's in 1992.

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4. The buccaneering spirit will prevail (Daily Telegraph)

Cameron's fighting performance this week has put Labour on the back foot again, writes Benedict Brogan. A free-flowing campaign focused on the party leaders could prove Gordon Brown's undoing.

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5. This Lib Dem myth (Guardian)

The belief that left-leaning voters will feel happier in the Liberal Democrats ignores the party's rightward shift, argues Tim Horton. Nick Clegg's tax plans would give more to the affluent middle classes than to the poorest.

6. Obama won't restrain Israel -- he can't (Independent)

Given the strength of the Israel lobby and Washington's strategic relationship with Tel Aviv, Barack Obama has no hope of preventing Binyamin Netanyahu's illegal settlement expansion, says Rupert Cornwell.

7. Poverty blights the dream of Hong Kong (Financial Times)

The territory's tradition of small government and belief in the free market has left it with the worst income inequality in Asia, writes David Pilling.

8. Why do the Tories want to be the heirs to Blair? (Daily Mail)

The Tories will not succeed by trying to ape Tony Blair, writes Stephen Glover. The public no longer shares their infatuation with the former prime minister.

9. Needed: a peaceful anti-Netanyahu uprising (Times)

Malcolm Rifkind argues that Israel needs a peaceful, democratic revolution to re-create a government with a genuine commitment to a two-state solution.

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10. A messiah can't do it. To reshape the world, the US must first reform itself (Guardian)

The biggest problem for American foreign policy is a conservative Congress, writes Timothy Garton Ash. If Obama's foreign policy is to prove effective, he must reform political finance and curb the lobbyists.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.