Jeremy Clarkson defends the "Chipping Norton set"

It wasn't BSkyB David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks talked about over their "Christmas-time" dinner: it

In this week's Sunday Times, Jeremy Clarkson has taken a brief respite from shouting "POWER" as he drives round corners to defend the ex-News International boss -- and close friend -- Rebekah Brooks.

The piece is a response to Peter Oborne's blog post in the Telegraph, which blamed many of David Cameron's troubles on the "Chipping Norton set" -- "an incestuous collection of louche, affluent, power-hungry and amoral Londoners, located in and around the Prime Minister's Oxfordshire constituency".

Those in the set were said to include the PR man Matthew Freud and his wife Elisabeth Murdoch, as well as Brooks and her husband, the racehorse trainer Charlie.

Not so, says Clarkson. Matthew Freud lives in Burford, "which to most people in Chipping Norton -- myself included -- is basically France". Admittedly, David and Samantha Cameron do live nearby but Clarkson doesn't see them very much any more, "partly because Sam is one of those non-smokers who suddenly remembers when she's presented with a smoker like me that what she'd like to do is smoke all my bloody cigarettes". (Although Cameron did find time to dress up as the Stig for Clarkson's birthday party.)

Perhaps the best part of the article, however, is where Clarkson describes the "Christmas-time" dinner at Rebekah's and Charlie's house, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch. (That's how he refers to it, by the way -- "Christmas-time" -- so we're still in the dark over whether it was Christmas dinner itself. The mental image of Clarkson snoring gently through the Queen's Speech, while Cameron stands over him, tutting, still lives on.)

What Rebekah and Cameron talked about most of all -- and I'm a trained journalist so I understand the need to get things right -- is sausage rolls.

We were planning a big walk with all our kids over Christmas and thought it might be a good idea to build a fire in my woods and stop off for a picnic. Rebekah was worried about what we'd eat. Cameron thought sausage rolls would be nice.

So, there you have it. Confident that his case has been proved, Clarkson adds triumphantly: "In other words, it was much like a million other Christmas-time dinners being held in a million other houses all over the world that day." (That leaves me feeling a bit left out -- I had a prime minister and a billionaire media baron's son at mine but unaccountably missed out on the host of a popular motoring show. Oh, well, perhaps next year. I'll get the call in to Richard Hammond now.)

PS. The Mail on Sunday reports today that the Chipping Norton set was still in full swing two weeks ago, with Elisabeth Murdoch's and Matthew Freud's summer party at their Cotswolds home. Guests included Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch . . . and Jeremy Clarkson.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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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.