Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

Rachel Sylvester writes in the Times that the American fury over the release of the Lockerbie bomber marks the death of the "special relationship" and that the UK has not found a replacement.

For the Americans, this is not just about justice it is also about trust -- the White House sees the release of al-Megrahi as a blatant breach of an agreement given by the British government that he would serve out his sentence in Scotland. It is impossible to sustain a relationship, let alone a special one, if one partner can no longer believe what the other one says.

The Independent's Steve Richards argues that those who advocate public service reform ignore the increased costs involved.

The free market reformers argue that competition will raise standards and save costs. Perhaps it will over time, although the evidence in other fields does not suggest this will automatically be the case. After the privatisation of the railways the costs for the taxpayer soared, partly because so many more outsiders were involved, often making the delivery of the service much worse.

In the Guardian, Robert Reich says that the problem with the US budget deficit is that it's too small. The US government must reject the "deficit hysterics" and pursue the only reliable way to expand the economy.

Without large deficits this year and next, and perhaps even the year after, the economy doesn't have a prayer of getting back on a growth path. In that case, the debt-to-GDP ratio could really get ugly.

Gordon Brown should have defended the release of the Lockerbie bomber, argues the Daily Telegraph's Mary Riddell. As ever, his fear of unpopularity has led to him becoming even more unpopular.

The PM could have denounced the bullying American officials who implied that the US would never consume another dram of whisky or stick of Edinburgh rock. He could, and should, say that bringing Libya into the fold has not only been good for trade. Tripoli has also abandoned its pursuit of nuclear weapons, helped fight al-Qaeda and so made Britain and the world less dangerous.

The New York Times's columnist David Brooks writes that President Obama's popularity has fallen faster than any previous president. He must distance himself from the Democrats' liberal wing to recover.

This is a country that has always been suspicious of centralised government . . . Most Americans still admire Obama and want him to succeed. But if he doesn't proceed in a manner consistent with the spirit of the nation and the times, voters will find a way to stop him.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.