Lib Dems hit back over boundary changes speculation

Source close to Clegg insists "election will be on old boundaries".

Yesterday I wrote this blog speculating about Conservative motives for keeping the boundary review in play, even when the Lib Dems have signalled their determination to vote against the plan.

The Tories, I surmised, are desperate to sustain the project on life support, even when all vital signs have gone, partly in the hope that it might yet one day be resuscitated but also because postponing its final extinction gives Conservatives a bargaining chip in other negotiations.

I have since spoken to a senior source close to Nick Clegg who, while not disputing my analysis of Tory motives, wanted to make clear that, as far as the Lib Dem leadership is concerned, the boundary changes are finished. That is non-negotiable and if the Conservatives think otherwise they "don’t quite get it".

"The next election will be fought on the old boundaries," my source said. "They [the Tories] need to accept that we are deadly serious about that … We are not going to allow boundary reform."

As for the idea of scraping together a majority in the Commons with votes from Ulster Unionists and Welsh Nationalists, Lib Dems politely point out that there are Tory MPs who would rebel in a vote on boundary changes. The whole concept of driving the whole thing through with pork-barrel promises to minor parties, say top Lib Dems, smacks of desperation on the Conservative side as the realisation dawns that winning a majority next time will be very, very hard indeed.

It is worth noting also that the "mid-term review" of coalition policy, due in November some time, has been postponed until January. This is the project that was once going to be grand renewal of vows under the Steve Hilton-esque "Coalition 2.0" rubric but was downgraded to a more modest audit of progress so far on policy implementation and outline of future priorities.

I am confidently assured that the delay says nothing at all significant about the state of relations between the two parties and that it is simply a function of the fact that the Autumn Statement (due on 5 December) is more urgent and takes up too much time, so the sequence of the two events changed. That is perfectly plausible.

Still, if there is to be a chapter on political or constitutional reform in the mid-term review the two sides clearly need to be communicating a bit more effectively about those boundary changes.

Nick Clegg pledged to veto the proposed boundary changes after David Cameron abandoned plans for House of Lords reform. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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.