Labour needs an answer to Osborne's charge that it would "borrow more"

If the party wants to attack Osborne on this territory, it needs to explain why and how it would borrow for growth.

The loss of Britain's AAA credit rating was a humiliating moment for George Osborne but as this afternoon's Commons clash with Ed Balls demonstrated, the Chancellor's position is stronger than it first appears. After asking Osborne an urgent question on the downgrade, Balls declared: 

He has gone in a weekend from saying he must stick to his plan to avoid a downgrade, to saying the downgrade is now the reason he must stick to his plan.
It was a neat line but Osborne had little trouble resolving this apparent contradiction. In its explanation of the downgrade, Moody's warned against "reduced political commitment to fiscal consolidation". Citing these words, Osborne said that while there would be no "reduced commitment from this government", Labour's answer to "too much borrowing" is "to add to it". The difference, of course, is that while Labour would borrow for growth (in the form of tax cuts and higher infrastructure spending), the coalition is borrowing to meet the cost of failure (in the form of lower growth and higher long-term unemployment). 
 
The problem for Labour, however, is that Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, aware that voters may not easily accept their distinction between "good" borrowing and "bad" borrowing, are unwilling to make this argument explicitly. Osborne ridiculed their approach as "an economic policy that dares not speak its name". The Chancellor's cause is aided by the fact that more voters continue to blame the last Labour government for the cuts than the coalition. Fearful of giving the impression that they would, in Osborne's words, make "the same mistakes" again, Labour will not openly declare that it too would borrow more (although, as Osborne noted, Ed Balls briefly did on the Today programme on Saturday) .
 
Rather than becoming trapped in a technical debate about the deficit, Labour would be wiser to focus on living standards, but if it wants to continue to attack Osborne on this territory it will need a much better explanation of its own approach. Without explicitly declaring that it would borrow for growth (and explaining why), the party merely reinforces the impression that borrowing is always and everywhere an economic ill. And that only strengthens Osborne's hand. 
Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. 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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