Commons Confidential: When Tory chips are down

Plus: The misfiring Adam Afriyie.

I appreciate the rapidly dwindling Conservative Party – down to half the size when David Cameron was elected leader – is desperate to win new recruits but the latest drive to boost membership is a bit fishy. A snout rang with the tale of an Essex man who went along to a Clacton fish-andchip supper organised by the local MP, Douglas Carswell. The chap paid his £10, enjoyed his cod and then listened to the debate before going home unconvinced by the Tory case on Europe. So imagine his perturbation at a letter from Carswell’s office informing him that his tenner would be converted into membership of the constituency association unless he wrote back renouncing the party. The chap couldn’t be bothered to reply and – hey presto! – an unwanted Tory membership card duly popped through his letter box. It’s no surprise Carswell can boast he’s doubled membership in Clacton when it’s as cheap as chips.

Fun and games are often had behind the Speaker’s chair during Prime Minister’s Questions. If Michael Gove arrives too late to squeeze on to the front bench, the school pugilist stands out of John Bercow’s sight and, rocking back and forth on his heels, deliberately winds up Labour MPs with a stream of sneers. The strapping six-foot two Labour whip Tom Blenkinsop has the job of blocking Gove to minimise altercations, but the language can still be unparliamentary. My informant clutching an order paper swore he heard Dame Margaret Beckett, a former foreign secretary well versed in the art of diplomacy, call Gove a “ducking twit” or some such creature.

Cameron’s pet northerner, Eric Pickles, helps keep Ed Miliband’s children in shoes. The Labour leader’s significant other, the barrister Justine Thornton, fights planning cases on behalf of Big Eric’s Department for Communities. She’s assured friends the work is on the legal cab rank principle. Small worlds, politics and the law.

The misfiring Adam Afriyie is a Tory with a bank account to match his ambition. The multimillionaire wannabe leader is employing the ex-News of the World editor Phil Hall to give him PR advice. Another wealthy Tory, Frank “Zac” Goldsmith, hires the ex-Mailman Ian Monk to burnish his image. Both are thorns in Cameron’s side. A newsman on the payroll is the new must-have accessory for the Westminster elite.

Ivan Lewis, the shadow cabinet minister, is unhappy he’s been banished to Northern Ireland. Lewis, whom Damian McBride admitted smearing during the Big Gordie era, was overheard moaning: “The Brownites finally got me.”

The Tory Tyke Alec Shelbrooke, asked if his Jack Russell-poodle cross, Boris, was a randy pooch, answered bluntly: “No, I chopped his balls off.” A course of action that Mrs Johnson may wish she’d pursued.

Tory membership: cheap as chips. Montage: Dan Murrell.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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