Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. The Pope can quit but it won't erase his complicity in his Church's crimes (Independent)

Letters from Cardinal Ratzinger have emerged in several US court cases, always protective of rapist priests, writes Geoffrey Robertson.

2. Jeremy Hunt's smoke and mirrors will not solve the care crisis (Guardian)

With no useful solution, the government should have left this snake's nest alone, says Polly Toynbee.

3. Horsemeat: Regulation doesn’t taste so bad now, does it? (Independent)

The question is no longer over the FSA’s existence but over whether it is powerful enough, writes Steve Richards.

4. Budget poker: Osborne needs a trump card (Times) (£)

There are rumblings of discontent from all sides as the Chancellor tries to improve on last year’s 'omnishambles', writes Rachel Sylvester.

5. A betrayal of Tory values that shatters the hopes of ordinary families (Daily Mail)

George Osborne had a dream of removing owners of family homes from inheritance tax, writes Stephen Glover. Now, in full possession of his faculties, he has decided to make them pay even more.

6. A rare sighting of good news in Europe (Financial Times)

The gloom that has haunted the region has lifted slightly, writes Gideon Rachman.

7. Why is it the state’s job to pay for our care? (Daily Telegraph)

There’s no 'scandal’ in selling a family home that has benefited from soaring house prices, says Philip Johnston.

8. Obama faces State of the Union test (Financial Times)

It is time for a serious overhaul of the US tax system, says an FT editorial.

9. Benedict, the placeholder pope who leaves a battered, weakened church (Guardian)

As John Paul II's right-hand man, he watched the papacy fall into decrepitude, writes Andrew Brown. He had no wish to follow suit.

10. Inheritance tax freeze proves Osborne is not a master strategist after all (Independent)

The Chancellor's 2007 pledge has been allowed to slip away with barely a murmur, notes an Independent editorial.

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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.