David Cameron delivers a speech on welfare in Hove, East Sussex, on February 17, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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What the Tories can't say about today's immigration figures: political failure is economic success

 The Conservatives' failure to meet their pledge to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" is one of the best things to have happened to the economy. 

One might have thought that the news on immigration couldn't get any worse for the Conservatives - but it just has. The figures released by the ONS this morning show that net migration rose to 298,000 in the year to September 2014, an increase of 88,000 compared to the previous 12 months. In other words, the level is now nearly three times the Tories' target of "tens of thousands" (of which David Cameron declared in 2010: "If we don't deliver our side of the bargain, kick us out in five years"). Worse, net migration is now higher than when the government took office, meaning that the Conservatives can't even boast that the trend is downwards. 

What they also can't say is that while an extraordinary political failure, the figures are an economic success. That the UK is the destination of choice for so many migrants (immigration rose to 624,000, while emigration was static at 327,000) both reflects and reinforces its status as a centre of prosperity. Since immigrants are younger and more economically active than the population in general they stimulate growth and increase employment (currently at a record high; proof, if needed, that migrants don't "take" jobs, they create them). But the Tories' "tens of thousands" target, which is premised on immigration being a negative force, means they are incapable of telling this positive tale. After political humiliation, they have largely stopped talking about the subject on the correct grounds that doing so only aids Ukip (the only party promising to regain control of the UK's borders through EU withdrawal). 

Labour will assail Cameron today for breaking his pledge to the electorate but this is not a simple political victory for the opposition. The rejoinder to their criticism of the Tories' failure is "what would you do?" Ed Miliband has long emphasised his aim of reducing low-skilled immigration to the UK (partly through more apprenticeships for British citizens) but has remained ambiguous on the question of what level of migration is ultimately desirable. Like the Tories, Labour is torn between the awareness that more immigration is an economic positive but that it remains a political negative. The danger for Miliband, as he tries to simultaneously woo pro-migration Greens and anti-migration Ukippers, is that his balancing act struggles to convince anyone. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.