Assessing the media reaction

Much of Fleet Street’s coverage of the Budget focuses on the introduction of the new 50p top tax rate, no doubt partly because newspaper editors are among those affected.

The Daily Telegraph’s front page depicts Gordon Brown as Lenin and howls that Labour has reignited the ‘class war’. The paper’s flagship columnist Simon Heffer rather counter-intuitively declares that the Budget was an assault on “Middle England”, despite the fact that the new top rate will only hit the richest 1 per cent.

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, the most visible champion of progressive taxation in recent years, hails the decision to “soak the rich” but laments that it has come so late. “This last social democratic flag may be drowning, not waving,” she writes. While the same paper’s leader warns that the rises in income tax will produce all too little revenue since they were “not combined with measures on property or capital.”

Far from a budget for the people, this was a budget for Switzerland, declares the Times’s leader . While some bankers will cough up, many more will be sent “scurrying to Geneva”, it claims. The decision to tear up the manifesto pledge not to raise income tax marks the death of “Mr Blair’s political project”, it adds. But the Independent’s reliably contrarian Steve Richards detects a quintessentially “new Labour dimension” to the decision. He notes that new Labour “never acted without checking the opinion polls and the focus groups first”, and suggests that Brown was persuaded to act after surveys showed the move would be popular.

However, it is one policy likely to swing Fleet Street against Labour come election time and Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times, declares that the Budget marks the end of new Labour’s romance with the Murdoch press. There is now “no doubt” that the Times and the Sun will back David Cameron at the next election, he writes on his blog. Elsewhere, the Financial Times’s political columnist Philip Stephens says that Cameron’s Budget response was “that of a politician on the threshold of Downing Street.”

A recent survey of senior editors and journalists by the ConservativeHome blog found that only the Daily Mirror was likely to offer unambiguous support for Labour at the next election and the press reaction does little to dispel this suggestion. Though few go as far as the Daily Express, whose front page flatly declares “They’ve Ruined Britain”.

Some rare words of comfort come from the influential economist Will Hutton in the Guardian, who writes that Alistair Darling’s “considered calmness is becoming a considerable economic and political asset.” But Peter Oborne's withering dismissal of the Chancellor is far more typical. “Darling ducked the challenge. He ran away from the sound of gunfire. He failed the nation and he failed himself,” he declares in the Daily Mail.

Darling’s admission today that “the headlines were never going to be good…I was reconciled to that”, reflects a stoicism that will be much needed over the coming months.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.