George Osborne’s editorship of the Evening Standard has certainly enlivened the paper’s leaders. Yesterday’s compared Leave voters to a “duped drunk in a strip club” and admitted that the coalition underfunded schools and hospitals (yes, the chancellor was one Mr Osborne).
Today’s takes aim at Theresa May’s vow to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” a year (which will be reaffirmed in tomorrow’s Conservative manifesto). “You would assume that Mrs May would jump at the chance to bury the pledge,” it reads. “That’s what her Cabinet assumed; none of its senior members supports the pledge in private and all would be glad to see the back of something that has caused the Conservative Party such public grief. But no. Mrs May has kept digging.”
Yet Osborne – still smarting from his ruthless sacking last year – is actually too generous to May. Senior cabinet ministers have opposed the pledge in public, not only in private. Last July, Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd both suggested that the target should be abandoned before being slapped down by No.10. Philip Hammond (whose position May refused to guarantee this morning) and Liam Fox have publicly argued that students should be excluded from the total – another concession the Prime Minister has refused to make.
As chancellor, Osborne was one of many cabinet ministers to privately oppose the pledge. “Sometimes, I think only Theresa and I actually believe in our immigration policy,” David Cameron complained to his cabinet. The then home secretary was undermined by colleagues (including Osborne) who opposed her efforts to reduce student visas and work permits.
Contrary to some expectations, she has doubled-down on the target as prime minister. Not only does May sincerely believe in the pledge (which would reduce net migration – currently 273,000 – to a level not seen since 1997), it is also a valuable political shield against Ukip (whose voters the Tories have been hoovering up).
But meeting the target is another matter. As I’ve written before, Brexit is teaching the UK why it needs migrants. The UK’s vote to leave the EU 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.
David Davis, for instance, has said: “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 … 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.”
By the time of the next election in 2022, the Conservatives will have missed their net migration pledge for more than a decade. But if past form is any guide, that won’t stop it being repeated in their manifesto.