Watch: Lord Ashcroft tries to pwn Owen Jones, fails

Owen Jones announces he's donating Ashcroft-funded prize money to Labour candidate and anti-cuts activists; Tory peer fails to deliver a decent comeback.

Owen Jones caused a bit of a stir last night, when after it was revealed that he had won the Political Book Awards Young Writer of the Year award, he announced he would be giving his £3,000 prize money (donated by Lord Ashcroft) away – half to Lisa Forbes, Labour candidate in Peterborough, and half to the Disabled People Against the Cuts group.

He tweeted:

Thanks to Jones, Tory mega-donor Lord Ashcroft’s money is going to be funding a Labour parliamentary candidate and a group of activists who vehemently oppose the actions of the Conservative politicians in the coalition. When he came up on stage to present another award, Lord Ashcroft attempted to have a pop at Jones in return, and delivered an unconvincing comeback. Watch here (from 1:30):

Transcript of Ashcroft's remarks about Jones:

To Owen Jones, who very kindly said his prize that I was donating he would give to causes – I would like to have a chat with you Owen, because I’m very happy to pay these to charities of your choice for a number of reasons. One, I’ll get tax relief; two, they can get Gift Aid, which will give them a little bit more; and thirdly, you won’t have to pay any tax on the prize. Therefore, if I could invite you to lunch at my local greasy spoon, the House of Lords, to discuss that, I would be delighted.

PS If Owen turns down Lord Ashcroft's offer of a date, it'll only be the second time in 24 hours:

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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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.