Osborne: Labour is being "opportunistic" just like Hague's Tories

The Chancellor says that Labour's "unprincipled" behaviour over the EU budget was like that of the Tories under William Hague.

After David Cameron suffered his first major Commons defeat over the EU budget last night, it was the submarine Chancellor who rose to hold the line on the Today programme this morning. George Osborne attempted to reassure Tory MPs by stating that he, like Cameron, wanted to see "a cut in the EU budget" and that the government was only at "the beginning of negotiations".

Unlike Nick Clegg, who will say in a speech later today that there is "absolutely no hope" of achieving a real-terms cut in the budget, Osborne refused to rule out the possibility of success (although he, like Clegg, knows that there is no chance of such an agreement). "Let's see what we bring home if we think there's a good deal," he said. He emphasised that Cameron's pledge to veto any above-inflation rise in the budget was a "tougher position" than any previous prime minister had adopted.

The most intriguing part of the interview came when Osborne was asked about Labour's decision to vote with the Tory rebels in favour of a real-terms cut. Rather than comparing the party's behaviour to that of John Smith over the Maastricht Treaty (as presenter Justin Webb invited him to do), Osborne said Labour's "opportunistic position" (the party supported an above-inflation increase in the EU budget in 2005) was reminiscent of the approach adopted by the Tories during the "early part" of the party's "period in opposition".

The Conservative leader at that time was, of course, one William Hague. One wonders how the Foreign Secretary feels about Osborne dismissing his leadership as "unprincipled". But it was an ingenious line of attack because it allowed the Chancellor to argue that Labour, like Hague's Tories, was not a credible "alternative government". The problem for the Conservatives, however, is that voters are much more likely to notice Cameron's refusal to call for a cut in the EU budget (most will view an inflation-linked "freeze" as a "rise") than they are Labour's dubious politicking.

Chancellor George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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