Labour begins the year ahead but Cameron is still preferred to Miliband

First poll of the year gives Labour a 12-point lead but Cameron is eight points ahead as "the best prime minister".

If, as Harold Wilson said, a week is a long time in politics then two and a half years is an eternity. But that hasn't stopped commentators speculating about the result of the 2015 general election. In a notable piece for the Daily Telegraph just before the new year, former Tory MP and ConservativeHome executive editor Paul Goodman suggested that David Cameron should abandon any hope of winning a majority (an argument I made after Nick Clegg killed the boundary changes last August). His piece prompted a response from the energetic Conservative chairman Grant Shapps who, unsurprisingly, insisted that the race was from over and one from his ConHome colleague Tim Montgomerie, who argued that a Conservative majority, while unlikely, remained possible.

The first YouGov poll of the year offers evidence to support both arguments. Labour is on 43 per cent, 12 points ahead of the Conservatives (compared to a lead of just two at the start of 2012), a lead that, on a uniform swing, would see Ed Miliband enter Downing Street with a majority of 116 seats.

Poll leads, of course, can come and go. In February 1981, Michael Foot led Margaret Thatcher by 16 points. Yet aided by the "Falklands bounce" and the splintering of the centre-left vote, the Conservatives went on to win a majority of 144 seats in 1983. But even if the Tories chip away at Labour's lead in advance of the next election (as they surely will), it's hard to see them remaining the single largest party, let alone winning a majority. The Lib Dems' veto of the boundary changes means that Labour needs a lead of just one point on a uniform swing to win a majority; the Tories, by contrast, require one of seven. Since fewer people tend to vote in Labour constituencies, the party is able to win more seats with the same number of votes.

In the face of these daunting odds, one of the principal reasons why the Tories remain optimistic about their chances is David Cameron's consistent lead over Ed Miliband as the best prime minister. While Cameron's lead has narrowed since a year ago, when it stood at 24 points (41-17), he retains an eight-point advantage (33-25. Nick Clegg is on five per cent with "don't know" leading on 38 per cent). In the wake of his bravura conference speech, Miliband reduced Cameron's lead to four (31-27) but the gap soon widened again.

But this is a parliamentary system, you say, why should we care? The answer is that personal ratings are frequently a better long-term indicator of the election result than voting intentions. Labour often led the Tories under Neil Kinnock, for instance (sometimes by as much as 24 points), but Kinnock was never rated above John Major as a potential prime minister. A more recent example is the 2011 Scottish parliament election, which saw Alex Salmond ranked above Iain Gray even as Labour led in the polls. The final result, of course, was an SNP majority.

In an attempt to exploit Cameron's advantage over Miliband, the Tories intend to run a highly presidential campaign, asking the voters: do you want David Cameron or Ed Miliband as your prime minister? It's hard to see this overriding factors such as the collapse in the Lib Dem vote (which will gift Labour victory in scores of Tory-Labour marginals) but it is in Cameron, who remains more popular than his party, that Tory hopes continue to reside.

Thirty three per cent of voters believe David Cameron would make the best prime minister, compared to 25 per cent for Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Brexit effect: The fall in EU migration spells trouble for the UK

The 84,000 fall in net migration to 248,000 will harm an economy that is dependent on immigration.

The UK may not have left the EU yet but Europeans are already leaving it. New figures from the ONS show that 117,000 EU citizens emigrated in 2016 (up 31,000 from 2015) - the highest level for six years. The exodus was most marked among eastern Europeans, with a fall in immigration from the EU8 countries to 48,000 (down 25,000) and a rise in emigration to 43,000 (up 16,000).

As a result, net migration has fallen to 248,000 (down 84,000), the lowest level since 2014. That's still nearly more than double the Conservatives' target of "tens of thousands a year" (reaffirmed in their election manifesto) but the trend is unmistakable. The number of international students, who Theresa May has refused to exclude from the target (despite cabinet pleas), fell by 32,000 to 136,000. And all this before the government has imposed new controls on free movement.

The causes of the UK's unattractiveness are not hard to discern. The pound’s depreciation (which makes British wages less competitive), the spectre of Brexit (May has refused to guarantee EU citizens the right to remain) and a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia are likely to be the main deterrents. Ministers may publicly welcome the figures but many privately acknowledge that they come at a price. The OBR recently forecast that lower migration would cost £6bn a year by 2020-21. As well as reflecting weaker growth, reduced immigration is likely to reinforce it. Migrants pay far more in tax than they claim in benefits, with a net 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.

Brexit has in fact forced ministers to increasingly acknowledge an uncomfortable 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. Brexit secretary David Davis, for instance, recently conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall after the UK leaves the EU. "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 (a level not seen since 1997), 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.”

Alongside the new immigration figures, GDP growth in the first quarter of 2017 was revised down to 0.2 per cent - the weakest performance since Q4 2012. In recent history, there has only been one reliable means of reducing net migration: a recession. Newcomers from the EU halved after the 2008 crash. Should the UK suffer the downturn that historic trends predict, it will need immigrants more than ever. Both the government and voters may only miss migrants when they're gone.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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