The Standard's decision to go free will spook the nationals

Lebedev's contrarian move has caught the nationals off guard

Alexander Lebedev's decision to transform the London Evening Standard into a free newspaper from 12 October is certainly a contrarian one. It comes at a time when significant sections of the industry, notably Rupert Murdoch's News International and the Financial Times, are determined to develop new forms of paid-for journalism and shortly after the closure of one of the Standard's free-sheet rivals, the London Paper.

With London Lite, whose whole raison d'être was to take on Murdoch's London Paper, poised to suffer an early death, it was thought the Standard would be free to recoup the readers and advertisers who had migrated elsewhere. Instead, the Russian oligarch has surprised us all.

Lebedev's willingess to forgo £15m worth of income from the cover price is based on the optimistic assumption that ad revenue will eventually return to previous heights. The decision to increase the paper's distribution from 250,000 to 600,000 copies a day will assist this cause but it remains an unreliable gamble.

Yet the implications of the Standard's decision stretch far beyond the London market. If the paper maintains something close to its present quality it is likely that many readers will abandon their national titles of choice. Lebedev's bold declaration that "the London Evening Standard is the first leading quality newspaper to go free and I am sure others will follow" suggests that the Independent would become a free title if ever he acquired it. A paper with the Standard's history and prestige that is prepared to market itself aggressively represents a potent threat to the future of several national titles.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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