Theresa May, unlike her predecessor, could deliver on it. But if she does, Britain will be poorerby Jonathan Portes / May 22, 2017 / Leave a comment
For the past four decades, UK prime ministers, of both parties, have put the economy first. That is, they have thought their primary job, and the most important factor determining their political success, was to deliver steady growth and rising wages. And they have taken the view that the best way to achieve that was to pursue broadly “liberal” policies. It’s difficult to imagine two politicians more different than Gordon Brown and Margaret Thatcher—but they shared a hero in Adam Smith.
Theresa May has changed that. The Conservative Party manifesto is without doubt the most statist and interventionist produced by a governing party in living memory. As Nick Macpherson, the recently retired Permanent Secretary of the Treasury, put it:
“[I am] struck by the protectionist tone to the so-called industrial strategy in the Tory manifesto… I see the misguided hand of Joseph Chamberlain… Clarke, Brown, Darling and Osborne had many differences but when it came to trade they were Gladstonean.”
And nowhere is that illiberalism—in every possible sense—more obvious than when it comes to immigration. David Cameron’s pledge to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands” was a characteristically lazy political gimmick, devoid of either rationale or analysis. The only ways to hit a quantitative target for a sharp reduction in net migration are (unhappy) accident, that is to say a severe recession, the introduction of a degree of central planning into the UK economy and labour market that would run completely contrary to the long-standing direction of policy, or ending free movement through Brexit. Or some combination of all three.
For seven years none of these things happened, and the target was comprehensively missed. And senior Ministers—none of whom, the former Chancellor George Osborne informs us, thinks the target makes any economic sense at all—have been desperately trying to signal to business that this will continue. That is, as from 2010 to 2017, the target will not be the overriding driver of policy, so the damage will be minimised. In this, they have been implicitly supported by some opposition politicians—who would rather attack the government at a later date for breaking this promise than attack them for making it now—and by some Remainers who want to argue that Brexit will not deliver the promised reductions in immigration.