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Tories jettison some pledges much more easily than others

by Hugo Dixon | 04.10.2016

Some targets, it seems, are easier to junk than others. Theresa May – and her home secretary Amber Rudd – are clinging to the target of cutting net migration to the tens of thousands because it’s a sacred manifesto commitment. But the prime minister – and her chancellor Philip Hammond – are happily throwing their target of eliminating the budget deficit to the winds.

If the government was really only guided by what was in last year’s election manifesto, there wouldn’t be any basis for jettisoning one pledge and not the other. Both figured prominently in David Cameron’s election victory over Ed Miliband. Both topped the relevant sections of the manifesto. The exact words were: “We will keep our economy secure by running a surplus so that we start paying down our debts”, and “we will keep our ambition of delivering annual net migration in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands”.

But the pledge to eliminate a deficit has now been delayed – until some unspecified future date. As Hammond said in his Conservative Party conference speech: “The fiscal policies that George Osborne set out were the right ones for that time. But when times change, we must change with them. So we will no longer target a surplus at the end of this parliament.”

In many ways, looser fiscal policy is indeed sensible. After all, the Brexit vote may knock growth next year. This is despite the fact that the plunging pound and the Bank of England’s loose money have banished the immediate fears of recession.

But if it was sensible to junk the budget target, why wasn’t it also sensible to abandon the net migration one? After all, trying to hit it will also harm the economy. Not only is it driving the government’s hardline approach to its relations with the EU – so much so that we are now probably heading for hard Brexit; our economy will also suffer if our companies are unable to attract talent from around the world.

To be fair, neither May nor Rudd have set a deadline for hitting the migration target. Indeed, the prime minister studiously avoided saying whether the government would meet it by the 2020 election in an interview with the BBC Today Programme this morning. But the home secretary did announce a barrage of measures to tighten up on migration in her conference speech. The migration target is therefore driving government policy in a way that the deficit target isn’t.

Re-emphasising the target also risks damaging May’s credibility just as it did Cameron’s. Net migration in the year to end March was 327,000 – way above target – according to the ONS.

Cameron’s resignation gave the government an opportunity to revisit this commitment and, during the summer, it looked like Rudd wanted to do just that. But the prime minister seems to have decided to reassert it, presumably because she thinks the British people care more about controlling migration than the deficit. Having impaled herself in this way, the voters will not be impressed if she misses it.

Hugo Dixon is co-founder of CommonGround as well as editor-in-chief of InFacts. You can sign up as a supporter here.

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2 Responses to “Tories jettison some pledges much more easily than others”

  • If we are looking at manifesto promises, how about this one:

    “We are clear about what we want from Europe. We say: yes to the Single Market.”

    By rights, the House of Lords ought to block anything which goes against those promises. They won’t, I fear, because legislation will get passed through the Parliament Act of through additional peers anyway.