This morning’s Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail lead with immigration (see here and here), while today’s Times and Guardian lead with pensions (see here and here). The two sets of stories have no obvious policy connection but a very strong political one.
The Telegraph splashes on John Whittingdale calling for the Government to release the number of active national insurance numbers being used by EU migrants. Earlier this week, this site carried an article by David Davis urging the same course. The former Shadow Home Secretary pointed out that “the official figures, for what they are worth, show that 257,000 migrants came to the UK from the EU last year. But at the same time, 630,000 EU citizens registered for a new national insurance number. In other words, whilst the government claimed that only 257,000 people arrived from Europe, 630,000 signed up for work. That is a discrepancy of some 373,000 people.” The Mail reports Richard Harrington coming under fire from other Conservative MPs in the Commons over the fallen number of illegal immigrants being deported.
Meanwhile, the Times and Guardian go very big what looks like a very well-briefed story on George Osborne abandoning plans for radical pensions reform in the forthcoming budget. The sum of their account, which is also in other papers, is that the Chancellor has, in the words of the Guardian account, “listened to what people have said and concluded that now isn’t the right time – with uncertainty in the global economy and reforms such as auto-enrolment still bedding in – to turn things on their head”. This perhaps is part of the truth; it is certainly not the whole of it. The pensions industry has been preparing since Osborne’s consultation on pensions reform for radical change (for which in one sense there is a need, since the present pensions incentives offer more for higher earners than lower ones).
The Chancellor is backing off partly or even largely because of the interplay between the EU referendum and Tory MPs’ views, of which those two immigration stories today are a reminder. Over a fortnight has passed since the EU summit and David Cameron’s deal, but there is no sign of passions cooling.
Until the summit, Downing Street was shaping the political week, by means of Sunday articles or Monday speeches (or both) from the Prime Minister on social reform – life chances, University access, prison reform. They have been good speeches with solid content.
But is unclear how he will regain the initiative during a period in which six members of the Cabinet, roughly two in five Conservative MPs and a majority of Tory members oppose him publicly on Europe (and perhaps afterwards too).
With the weakest Labour opposition in living memory, the Government is both strong and weak. Strong, in that it can more or less whatever it likes if the matter at hand isn’t subject to votes in Parliament, but weak in any matter that is.
Osborne has already been scarred by the tax credit revolt. The combination of the referendum, his own pro-Remain position, Cameron’s planned departure from Downing Street before 2020 and his leadership ambitions is a perilous one for him.
A recent Times YouGov poll suggested that Boris Johnson is now Party members favourite as next leader: we will be publishing our own latest survey result next week. But there is a far bigger issue at stake. If the Government becomes paralysed in Parliament, how will it be able to meet the challenges facing Britain?