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Good morning. I’ve been rather critical of Rishi Sunak’s political strategy in this newsletter recently (and indeed on our podcast, and on Sky, and on the BBC, and . . . you get the picture).
But when I look at both the public and private reaction of his MPs to the UK’s immigration figures, and the demands for “action” from his parliamentary party, I think I’ve missed the wood for the trees. Ultimately the biggest constraint facing the prime minister is that this is a party that does not want to be led. Some more thoughts on that below.
Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Read the previous edition of the newsletter here. Please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to [email protected]
What became of the immigration manifesto pledge
Net migration to the UK in the 12 months to June this year was 672,000, while net migration last year has been revised upwards to a record high of 745,000.
While these figures are consistent with the ONS and the OBR’s forecast that net migration figures will fall as various one-off events (the war in Ukraine, a post-Covid bulge in student arrivals and so forth) work their way through, the “resting level” of net migration to the UK over the past 13 years looks to have been around 300,000. That is much higher than the Conservative party’s much-repeated promises to cut it to the tens of thousands.
The UK has these figures because it is a low-tax country (relatively-speaking, given the upward pressures on spending faced by essentially all states). The two biggest drivers in recent years are vacancies in health and social care, and overseas students. If you want the immediate action that many Conservative MPs are calling for to reduce the level of immigration into Britain, you need to be willing to put more money into higher education and more money into health and social care.
Personally, I am intensely relaxed about the UK’s universities using overseas tuition fees to cross-subsidise higher education, and pretty relaxed too about the UK attracting doctors and nurses from overseas. Selfishly, this is not a policy choice I would be happy to pay higher taxes for! Equally selfishly, I would be happy to pay higher taxes to pay social care workers more and to increase the pay and prestige of that profession.
You may well disagree with me on either or both of those, and that’s the essence of politics: governments choose which groups of voters to alienate and which groups to court.
The trouble for Rishi Sunak is that many of his MPs seem to want to make neither choice. To take an illustrative example: Neil O’Brien, the MP for Harborough, has written a lengthy piece on his new Substack calling for the UK government to rethink its approach to migration, and to pay social care workers more.
That’s the same O’Brien who has welcomed this week’s tax-cutting budget — tax cuts that mean lower public spending — and called for more money for the NHS at the next fiscal event. There’s nothing wrong with any of these policy positions individually — but collectively there is a real failure to engage with trade-offs. And O’Brien is by no means exceptional. This pattern of “call for tax cuts on Monday and end the week asking for spending increases” is easy to find on social media and even easier to find in private. (He’s just the only one who’s written a Substack, that’s all.)
The big problem here is that the Conservatives badly need to have a big and bruising fight over what type of party they want to be. That means facing up to what its choices mean for the party’s other positions on tax, immigration, the NHS, and any other issue you care to name. That’s the kind of battle you can only really have in opposition — though the ructions caused by that fight can keep you there for longer.
I would not have chosen Rishi Sunak’s political strategy if I was in his position and I don’t think it is going to work for him. But ultimately, a party leader can only lead a party that wants to be led, and no prime minister can successfully govern a slew of backbenchers who demand tax cuts at the start of the week and end it calling for spending increases.
Now try this
Last Friday night I saw The Marvels. I struggled to follow it — Marvel’s belief that I will intimately recall the plot of a disposable blockbuster I watched in 2019 is tragically misplaced, let alone that I will recall the plots of their interminable TV shows that I only watch when ill or hungover — but it was a little over 90 minutes and enjoyable in a shlocky way. Danny Leigh’s review is bang on, I think. This weekend I’m looking forward to cooing over a friend’s new baby, watching the new Doctor Who and seeing the new Leonard Bernstein biopic. However you spend it, have a wonderful weekend.
Top stories today
Energy price cap to rise | Britain’s household energy price cap is set to climb by 5 per cent in the new year, in a setback for the government’s efforts to curb inflation.
Poison pill | Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said Jeremy Hunt or his successor would have “one heck of a headache” in handling the post-election squeeze on public services pencilled in by the chancellor. Hunt said that if he had instead put £20bn into public services, he would not have secured his objective of making the economy more competitive.
BBC behind on funding regions | The BBC has failed to move its promised spending on music and radio out of London to fund projects in other parts of the UK, according to the public spending watchdog.
Senior Tories vie for spring election | Rishi Sunak is under mounting pressure to hold a spring election after he ushered in an earlier than expected tax break in the Autumn Statement, the i reports. It came as it emerged that Isaac Levido will take over the reins at CCHQ as director of campaigns in January, sparking further claims that an early election is in the offing.
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