Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. This budget is just as I feared (Guardian)

Only growth can save us from a lost decade, says Alistair Darling. But George Osborne is risking not just recession but depression.

2. Labour made the mess, but the Tories are only making it worse (Daily Telegraph)

The ugly truth is that there appears to be no political solution to the calamity facing us all, says Peter Oborne.

3. Shrewd politics hides brutal economics (Financial Times)

The Chancellor cannot disguise that economic outcomes are drifting further from expectations, writes Martin Wolf.

4. Trapped by his own ideology, the Chancellor is lonelier than ever (Independent)

Cabinet ministers are becoming more assertive, behind the scenes and publicly, writes Steve Richards.

5. Why we should be cautious about cheering on Cyprus's no vote (Guardian)

The main demand of this week's 'parliamentary revolt' was that Cyprus remain an offshore tax haven, writes Nikos Chrysoloras.

6. Osborne’s play for the strivers (Financial Times)

The chancellor had to revive his party’s winning tradition as the friend of the aspirational classes, writes Janan Ganesh.

7. This Budget was too hopeful. We want despair (Times)

The Chancellor calls Britain an ‘aspiration nation’, but we all know we’re in a mess, writes Matthew Parris. His best policy is to admit it.

8. George may seem unlovable but the smirking alternative would lead us to perdition (Daily Mail)

We must never forget that the only alternative government on offer will be led by Miliband and Balls, says Max Hastings.

9. Rights and wrongs of a Royal Charter (Independent)

An Independent editorial says that "with reluctance", the paper has accepted the use of a Royal Charter to create a new press regulator.

10. Good parenting can’t be measured in GDP (Daily Telegraph)

What does our Cabinet, mainly upper-class males, understand of real-world child care dilemmas, asks Allison Pearson. 

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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.