Cracks in the coalition on immigration

Cable comes out swinging against Cameron’s cap.

Given that the Lib Dems went into the election promising an amnesty for illegal immigrants and ended up supporting the Tories' unworkable cap, it's hardly surprising that Vince Cable feels the need to reassert his liberal credentials.

Cable's declaration that he wants to see as "liberal an immigration policy as it's possible to have" has succeeded in bringing the cabinet's internal divisions out into the open. Pushing the principle of collective ministerial responsiblity to the limit, he revealed that he was "arguing within government" for "the most flexible regime possible".

But as the Spectator's Fraser Nelson points out, the fact that David Cameron's pledge to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" a year was not included in the coalition agreement means that the policy is up for negotiation -- and rightly so.

Immigration fell significantly during the recession, but net migration of 142,000 in 2009 indicates that Cameron would need to cut immigration by at least 30 per cent to bring the total to less than 100,000. Privately, Tories speak of an even more unrealistic target of 50,000.

Cameron's promise remains unfeasible for several reasons. For a start, the government cannot limit immigration from within the EU without restricting the free movement of labour and throwing the UK's continued membership into doubt. The policy also ignores the 39,000 people who come to the UK on spousal visas after marrying British citizens abroad.

In the case of his India trip, Cameron's declaration that "Britain is open for business" sits uneasily with his belief that the door must be closed to some. Cable may be aware of this, but his call for a "flexible cap" -- a contradiction in terms -- reveals the tangle the government has got itself into.

The most practical and liberal policy would be to abandon the cap altogether but, for now, it looks like the coalition will try to muddle through.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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When it comes to the "Statin Wars", it's the patients I pity

Underlying the Statin Wars are two different world-views: the technological and holistic.

September saw the latest salvos in what has become known in medical circles as the Statin Wars. The struggle is being waged most publicly in the pages of Britain’s two leading medical journals. In the red corner is the British Medical Journal, which in 2014 published two papers highly critical of statins, arguing that they cause far more side effects than supposed and pointing out that, although they do produce a modest reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease, they don’t make much difference to overall mortality (you may avoid a heart attack, only to succumb to something else).

In the blue corner is the Lancet, which has long been the publishing platform for the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists’ (CTT) Collaboration, a group of academics whose careers have been spent defining and expounding the benefits of statins. The CTT was infuriated by the BMJ papers, and attempted to force the journal to retract them. When that failed, they set about a systematic review of the entire statin literature. Their 30-page paper appeared in the Lancet last month, and was widely press-released as being the final word on the subject.

A summary would be: statins do lots of good and virtually no harm, and there really is no need for anyone to fuss about prescribing or taking them. In addition, the Lancet couldn’t resist a pop at the BMJ, which it asserts acted irresponsibly in publishing the sceptical papers two years ago.

Where does all this leave the average patient, trying to weigh up the usefulness or otherwise of these drugs? And what about the jobbing doctor, trying to give advice? The view from no-man’s-land goes something like this. If you’ve had a heart attack or stroke, or if you suffer from angina or other conditions arising from furred-up arteries, then you should consider taking a statin. They’re not the miracle pill their proponents crack them up to be, but they do tip the odds a little in your favour. Equally, if you try them and suffer debilitating side effects (many people do), don’t stress about stopping them. There are lots more effective things you could be doing – a brisk daily walk effects a greater risk reduction than any cholesterol-lowering pill.

What of the millions of healthy people currently prescribed statins because they have been deemed to be “at risk” of future heart disease? This is where it gets decidedly murky. The published evidence, with its focus on cardiovascular outcomes alone, overstates the case. In healthy people, statins don’t make any appreciable difference to overall survival and they cause substantially more ill-effects than the literature suggests. No one should be prescribed them without a frank discussion of these drawbacks, and they should never be taken in lieu of making lifestyle changes. Smoking cessation, a healthy diet, regular modest exercise, and keeping trim, are all far more important determinants of long-term health.

Underlying the Statin Wars are two different world-views. One is technological: we can rely on drugs to prevent future health problems. This perspective suffers substantial bias from vested interests – there’s a heck of a lot of money to be made if millions of people are put on to medication, and those who stand to profit make huge sums available to pay for research that happens to advance their cause.

The other world-view is holistic: we can take care of ourselves better simply by living well, and the fetishising of pharmaceutical solutions negates this message. I have great sympathy with this perspective. It certainly chimes with the beliefs of many patients, very few of whom welcome the prospect of taking drugs indefinitely.

Yet the sad truth is that, irrespective of our lifestyles, we will all of us one day run into some kind of trouble, and having medical treatments to help – however imperfectly – is one of mankind’s greatest achievements. In arguing for a greater emphasis on lifestyle medicine, we must be careful not to swing the pendulum too far the other way.

Phil Whitaker’s latest novel is “Sister Sebastian’s Library” (Salt)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood