After Labour's leftwards lurch, the Lib Dems have the centre all to themselves

With Labour preaching socialism and the Tories chasing after UKIP, Clegg will be rather pleased with how things have turned out.

Apparently we in the Lib Dems are meant to have had a fit of the vapours over the re-emergence of Red Ed. James Forsyth tells us that "there’s genuine concern in Clegg’s circle about the contents and policy implications of Miliband’s speech. After yesterday, it is even harder to see how a Clegg Miliband coalition would work."

And I’m sure he’s not making that up. I suspect Nick does go a little weak at the knees at the thought of being the filling in an Ed Miliband and Linda Jack sandwich.

But actually Nick will probably be rather pleased about the way things have panned out in Brighton. Sure, the inner circle may be a little horrified at the prospect of coalition negotiations with a Labour leader reviving the 1983 manifesto, but at least Labour have now clearly tacked left. They may not have meant to – 'One Nation' is still being kicked about - but in the context of Labour’s new strategic approach, it’s a dead duck. They have nailed their colours firmly to the socialist mast.

Meanwhile, far from being tempted to chase after them, the Tories seem destined to tack in the other direction as they look to take the ground back from UKIP. How else to explain George Osborne's decision to march off to Brussels to defend capitalist predators just as Miliband is taking them on. 'Ed’s trying to fix the market, George is trying to free it' will be their cry around the shires.

And where does that leave Nick? Well, firstly, in the centre ground that he has promised to fight for since the last election. And what’s more, he finds the Lib Dems now have it all to themselves.

Secondly, Labour knows full well that to retain 2010 Lib Dem voters, it needs Lib Dem-friendly policies – like a mansion tax, a living wage, free childcare, decarbonisation targets. Why, Lib Dem activists even voted to condemn the Bedroom Tax last week. Plenty of common ground there for any coalition negotiations.

And thirdly, if either Labour or the Tories genuinely want to deliver on any of their more radical and eye-catching policies, they’re going to have to come up with some significant quid pro quos for the Lib Dems – like Lords reform. Otherwise they may find they can’t deliver on some high profile pledges, which, from experience, doesn’t play well with the average voter.

So it’s all fallen into place rather nicely. Almost like it was planned that way. It’s probably why they call him Mystic Clegg.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.