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100 business chiefs back the Conservatives - it's more important than you think

The latest attack on Labour by business may be dismissed as "man bites dog", but it could do damage to the party, albeit indirectly.

103 business leaders have endorsed the Conservatives in a letter to the Telegraph. Does it matter? 

Like Harry Potter's Mirror of Erised, you can see what you want in it. Labour optimists will point out that many of the signatories are Conservative peers and donors. It's likely that the tax affairs of some of the other signatories will now come into the spotlight, which some party insiders believe will harm the Tories.

Labour strategists, who have long-anticipated this attack, also hope that the focus on their offer to business earlier this week - lower business rates for small businesses, no destabilising In-Out referendum on Europe for the big corporates - will sufficiently muddy the waters that the row doesn't do any damage to the party's standing in the polls.

But pessimists within the party will point to the presence of Duncan Bannatyne, who warned against a Cameron government in 2010, or Sir Charles Dunstone, who endorsed Labour in 2005. They fear that the support of business leaders provides a kitemark of credibility that the party cannot afford to do without.

A lot hinges on how Labour react to the letter. A week-long row with a few - many low-profile - business leaders is unlikely to do Labour much direct damage.  But a week spent on the rather abstract question of whether Ed Miliband is a danger to business is a week spent away from the party's issues. As one MP commented to me during the party's last row with business: "I doubt any of my constituents heard about it. But it certainly meant they didn't hear about the paternity stuff."

Just as the party's announcement on extending paternity leave was overshadowed by Miliband's clash with Boots chief Stefano Pessina, it could be that this row blots out any headlines for Labour's strengthened pledge to curb zero-hours contracts. That's far more worrying than any number of letters to the Telegraph.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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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.