'Popular, radical but realistic policies'

'I do know that that we have been hitting the right buttons on issues that matter to ordinary people

It’s nearly over; a very late night tonight, the Leader’s speech tomorrow morning – which, of course, will be brilliant and then it’s back to Bath.
If you’ve never been to a party conference you would be amazed by the stamina of most delegates. We’re up early for breakfast meetings and from there we attend some of the main debates, maybe give a speech or two, squeezing in fringe meetings through lunchtime. Then, even more debates, meetings or training sessions until late at night and finally the partying and, as Lembit pointed out, the real political debates truly begin. So I’ll be going back to the real world with my political batteries thoroughly re-charged but in need of a rest.
At the conference you are in a strange bubble; almost oblivious to the world outside. For the past few days – as the party’s culture, media and sports spokesman – I’ve been immersed in issues as diverse as the distribution of Lottery funds, preparations for 2012, the future of ITV, the role of creativity in education and the challenges faced by our rugby clubs. But I’ve not had time to see or hear the news or to read a newspaper (except the clippings I’m handed showing only the daily press coverage of the conference).  I’m out of touch with anything else. I don't even have any idea what’s happened in the Archers.
But I do know that that we have been hitting the right buttons on issues that matter to ordinary people. Certainly our policies on tax cuts for average and low income households have been well received. So was our debate, involving Graham Le Saux, on the way football fans are losing out with the high cost of watching the game on TV and rip-off prices for season tickets.
We even debated and voted for the possible re-introduction of standing in top flight football games, subject to strict safety criteria. Our decision got generally favourable press coverage. The Sunday Express, however, did what Liberal Democrats used to be accused of doing: trying to have it both ways. The main article had people accusing me and the party of being “insensitive”, “crackpots”, “a severe embarrassment to Nick Clegg”. Meanwhile, a few pages later the editorial claims, “Liberal Democrats should be applauded for re-opening a debate that has engaged football fans for the past two decades…Shouldn’t clubs have the option of having a section of their ground for fans to stand in?”
As I drive back to Bath for a few hours sleep, I’ll reflect on how far we’ve come in developing popular, radical but realistic policies that reflect debates being held over drinks, and in living rooms, far beyond our little bubble in Bournemouth.  

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.