Come on, Nick. Seize the day

It's now up to the Lib Dem leader to kill the health bill.

Ed Miliband nearly got it right twice last week.

First he said the NHS Bill was going to be the Tories' new Poll Tax. Then he said the same bill could become another tuition fees debacle for the Lib Dems.

You can almost feel him groping for the right political analogy. He knows it's there, just eluding his grasp. So let me help him out.

Ed, you need to jam those thoughts together. The NHS Bill is going to be the Tories' tuition fees fiasco.

We know a bit about how this works in the Lib Dems. You make some promises. You associate yourself personally with those pledges. You even start running advertising assuring everyone that everything is safe in your hands. And then, when you're in power, you do the complete opposite. And the electorate crucify you for it.

Admittedly this has taken a little longer to pin on the Tories. I wrote a year ago, when reforms were first introduced, that this would happen and have been bemused ever since that folk haven't been more livid that the promise of "no top down reorganisations of the NHS'" appears to have been a bit of a fib. Especially when the likes of Andrew Mitchell go on the BBC and assert (as he did yesterday) that Andrew Lansley had been planning this for 5 years in opposition. (Given how things are panning out, I use planning in the loosest of terms).

I guess when, generally speaking, the country has such a low expectation of a Conservative politician keeping a promise, it takes longer for the anger to really sink in than it did for us Lib Dems, for whom people really did have higher hopes.

Which brings me to the little matter of redemption.

A couple of weeks ago it looked like Cameron was going to seize the day, drop the NHS bill, fire Lansley, and paint himself as the man who saved the NHS. There was an open goal there. For some reason he didn't take it. Who knows - maybe he really does believe in the reforms. Wouldn't that be a turn up?

Anyway, Cameron welded himself firmly to the Bill. Which means there is a vacancy going for a political leader willing to grasp the nettle, kill the bill and save the NHS. Ed Miliband would love to take it. But he of course, has no power. No, it needs someone who could actually stop the Bill, negotiate some sensible compromises with the Tories and Labour - everyone agrees some changes would be a good thing - and go some way to restoring the faith of a nation in their political acumen. And their principles.

Hey, Nick. Carpe Diem.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.