CommentPlus: pick of the papers

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

1. Tories' chance to lose their nasty image (Financial Times)

David Cameron should sack Chris Grayling for defending the right of B&B owners to turn away gay couples, argues Chris Cook. This is a golden opportunity for the Tory leader to show the depth of his commitment to changing his party.

2. Chris Grayling reveals the real Tories (Guardian)

Elsewhere, Peter Tatchell says that Cameron's failure to condemn Grayling's remarks swiftly calls into doubt the sincerity and seriousness of his commitment to gay equality.

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3. Best forgotten (Times)

With the World Cup due to open in Johannesburg in June, the murder of Eugene Terre'Blanche could not have come at a worse time for South Africa, says a leader in the Times. His death must not be allowed to threaten the racial harmony that this white supremacist always opposed.

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4. I have never known the Tories to be so committed to the poor (Independent)

Unlike Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron has an instinctive sympathy for the poor, writes Bruce Anderson. After the left's failure to stem inequality, the Tories' social justice agenda deserves a chance.

5. Health-care reform is creating more anxiety than euphoria (Guardian)

The passage of health-care reform was a definite negative for Barack Obama's poll ratings, says Michael Tomasky. The president must confront a deep anxiety among independent voters that the Democrats are planning more huge domestic legislation.

6. Politicians should get among the people (Daily Telegraph)

The party leaders should follow John Major's example and get on the soapbox, writes Philip Johnston. Limited contact between the electorate and those who seek to lead it is one of the main reasons for declining turnout.

7. Italy still unable to see beyond Berlusconi (Financial Times)

The Italian electorate appears convinced that there is no alternative to Silvio Berlusconi, says Geoff Andrews. But Berlusconi's reforms are designed to do little more than consolidate his power and neuter his opponents.

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8. God is attracting more debate than ever (Guardian)

The New Atheists intended to dent the growth of religion across the world, writes Madeleine Bunting. Instead, they only fed our interest in it.

9. George Osborne's got it right -- we need wealth creation (Daily Telegraph)

The Tories' planned National Insurance cut proves that they support and understand the wealth creators of society, argues Boris Johnson.

10. Marginalised maybe, but we aren't persecuted (Times)

Christians in Britain need to learn to speak of their faith without implying that those of no faith are morally defective, says Richard Harries.

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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.