Coalition unaccomplished? Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Coalition rift: Danny Alexander accuses Tories of looking to "inflict unnecessary pain"

Conservative and Lib Dem ministers are exacerbating the coalition rift emerging from the Chancellor's Autumn Statement.

A fresh coalition rift emerged last week when George Osborne made his Autumn Statement. When he was outlining his economic plan of cuts to come, which made it clear the Tories' plan for austerity beyond fixing the deficit, the Lib Dems looked to distance themselves from such harsh financial decisions.

The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg didn't attend the statement, the Business Secretary Vince Cable openly derided the Tories' plans as unattainable and "brutal". However, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, loyally did the media rounds and was willing to discuss the Treasury's new policies.

But now even Alexander, described by some insiders to have "gone native" in the Treasury, has attacked his coalition partner's economic plans as looking to "inflict unneccessary pain" on the country. In an article for the Daily Telegraph, Alexander accuses the Conservatives of wanting austerity to last forever. He claims that the Conservatives wanting to further shrink the state is, "an ideological demand, not an economic necessity", and accuses the party of panicking ahead of the election:

Who would have thought that of the two parties that formed the Coalition, it would be the Tories who would be blown off course? A mix of unfunded tax promises, harsh spending plans, and pandering to Ukip may be born of pre-election panic, but it is not economically credible.

In turn, David Cameron has written in an email to Tory MPs that the Lib Dems are "all over the place" on cutting the deficit, and that the Autumn Statement plans are "distinctly" Conservative, rather than a truly joint coalition effort. 

This skirmish comes after Clegg told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show over the weekend that the Tories are "kidding themselves" about balancing the books:

I just think the Conservatives are kidding themselves and seeking to kid British voters if they are claiming that it is possible to balance the books, deliver unfunded tax cuts, shrink the state and support public services in the way that everybody wants.

As I wrote about Clegg and Cable's initial attitude to the Autumn Statement last week, this is foolish behaviour from the Lib Dems. Their "differentiation" technique of trying to distance themselves from Tory policies won't get them particularly far now, considering their consistently woeful polling just five months until the general election. What is more important is that they show themselves to be a vital coalition partner, in preparation for the highly likely prospect of future alliances. They hardly seem indispensable as a coalition partner if they decry the policies they were supposed to be a key part in formulating.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.