Trouble for the Tories as net migration rises to 176,000

The 23,000 increase in net migration suggests Cameron will struggle to meet his target of reducing it to "tens of thousands" by 2015.

After scepticism that David Cameron would even get close to his goal of reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year by the end of this parliament, the Conservatives have recently hailed their success in cutting it by a third since 2010. But today's figures from the ONS show that, after five successive quarters of decline, the numbers are now moving in the wrong direction.

In the year to December 2012, net migration (the difference between the number of emigrants and immigrants) stood at 176,000, up from 153,000 in the year to September 2012. This was due to a decline in emigration (which fell from 351,000 to 321,000), rather than an increase in immigration (which fell from 566,000 to 497,000), but since Cameron chose to adopt the net migration figure as his metric of success, the trend is politically problematic (if not economically problematic. As I've previously notedmigrants contribute far more in taxes than they receive in benefits and services and the OBR estimates that Britain needs net migration of around 140,000 a year to limit the increase in the national debt to 99 per cent of GDP.)

Worse for the Tories, it will become even harder for them to reach their target once the transitional controls on Romanian and Bulgarian expire on 1 January 2014. While there are likely to be far fewer new arrivals than UKIP and the right-wing press suggest, the Migration Matters Trust estimates that at least 20,000 will move to the UK. With Cameron powerless to restrict EU immigration, owing to the principle of the free movement of labour, the likelihood is that the total number will rise. Ahead of next summer's European elections, that will prove a political gift for Farage and co. 

David Cameron talks to UK Border Agency officials in their control room during a visit to Heathrow terminal 5. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.