Jeremy Browne's attack on Labour shows how the Lib Dems are divided on their future

While Tim Farron heaped praise on Ed Miliband, Browne says that Labour is "intellectually lazy" and suffering from a "leadership void".

With another hung parliament looking increasingly likely in 2015, the Lib Dems' thoughts are turning to a second coalition. But as the interviews with Tim Farron and Jeremy Browne in this week's NS show, the party is sharply divided over whether a partnership with Labour or the Tories is the more desirable outcome. 

When I spoke to him last week, Farron lavished praise on Ed Miliband, telling me:

First of all, he’s a polite and nice person. I think he is somebody who is genuinely of the Robin Cook wing of the Labour Party, from their perspective what you’d call the 'soft left'. Somebody who is not a Luddite on environmental issues, somebody who’s open minded about modernising our democracy, somebody who’s instinctively a bit more pluralistic than most Labour leaders and a bit more internationalist as well. 

He mischievously added:

And they’re other things too. For all that I think he could have done a lot more on the AV campaign, he did at least have the backbone to come out and back it. He wouldn’t share a platform with Nick [Clegg], so he ended up with me, poor thing. I like the guy.

As the Lib Dem president knows, should Miliband refuse to form a coalition with Clegg in 2015, he could well end up with him again. 

But Farron's admiration for Miliband is not shared by Browne, the Home Office minister and an Orange Book ally of Clegg, who told Rafael that Labour is "intellectually lazy, running on empty" and suffering from a "leadership void". Rather than acclaiming Miliband as a model progressive, he praised David Cameron for identifying "the big issue of our time" in the form of "the global race". Perhaps most significantly, he said of Labour: "I just don't think of them as equipped to run the country". 

With their interventions, Farron and Browne are offering diametrically opposed visions of their party's future. According to the former, the Lib Dems should unambiguously remain a party of the centre-left, committed to the restoration of the 50p rate of income tax and the eventual abolition of tuition fees, and seeking common ground with Labour. But in the view of the latter, the party’s best hope lies in transforming itself into a British version of the German Free Democratic Party: economically liberal, fiscally conservative and instinctively closer to the Conservatives than Labour.

At present, the Lib Dems are trying to obviate this divide by stating that they will simply align with the largest party. Farron told me that "the electorate will decide who's in power" and that "the chances of us having a choice [of coalition partner] are as close to zero as to be not even worth contemplating". But in an election that could be the closest for decades, it is conceivable that both the Tories and Labour could be in a position to form a majority government with Lib Dem support. As Clegg's europhile party knows better than most, it is not uncommon in other European countries for the second-placed party to take power (Willy Brandt’s SPD administration in Germany and the current Swedish government are notable examples). If the Lib Dems do have a choice of coalition partner in 2015, the party's ideological divisions will burst into the open. 

Home Office minister Jeremy Browne said of Labour: "I just don't think of them as equipped to run the country". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.