Don't expect Osborne to play a "trump card" at the Budget

The Chancellor's fiscal conservatism means he won't deliver the tax cuts demanded by the right or the spending increases demanded by the left.

On all sides of the coalition, next month's Budget is viewed as the last chance to make a significant difference to growth before the general election. Conservative MPs are urging George Osborne to make radical tax cuts (this week's NS leader looked at Robert Halfon's call for a reinstated 10p tax band; others are pushing for dramatic cuts to corporation tax and capital gains tax), while the Lib Dems are arguing for a major increase in infrastructure spending. As the Times's Rachel Sylvester writes in her column today, the pressure is on Osborne to play "a trump card" when he steps up to the despatch box on 20 March.

But even with Britain facing a triple-dip recession at worst and prolonged stagnation at best, it is doubtful that he will deliver. While Tory MPs argue that any tax cuts would be self-financing and, therefore, that Osborne could act without abandoning his commitment to deficit reduction, the Chancellor does not accept their logic. As he remarked during a recent event at the US-based Manhattan Institute: 

I am more of a Thatcherite than a Reaganite when it comes to tax policy...I'm a fiscal conservative and I don't want to take risks with my public finances on an assumption that we are at some point in the Laffer curve. What I would say is let's see the proof in the pudding, in other words. I'm a low tax conservative, I want to reduce taxes but I basically think you have to do the hard work of reducing the cost of government to pay for those lower taxes.

For Osborne, tax cuts follow successful deficit reduction; they do not precede it.  

On the spending side, while it's possible and even probable that Osborne will raise planned spending on infrastructure (as he did at last year's Autumn Statement), he will only do so by squeezing current spending, limiting the effectiveness of any stimulus. 

To make a difference at this stage, Osborne would finally need to accept the Keynesian argument that governments should intentionally run deficits at times of economic stagnation. But borrowing for growth would be a tacit admission that his nemesis, Ed Balls, was right and he was wrong. And, for largely political reasons, that is something Osborne is not prepared to do. 

George Osborne attends the launch of the OECD's latest economic survey of the UK at the Treasury. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.