Will the Lib Dems kill Gove's GCSE plans?

Coalition rift opens up as Clegg's party vows to block changes.

There were notably few Lib Dems in the Commons for Michael Gove's emergency statement on scrapping GCSEs, a telling indicator of the party's hostility to the plans. Furious at Gove's failure to consult him on the changes, Nick Clegg interrupted his Rio trip to order Lib Dem officials to condemn the reforms. The resultant statement declared:

The Liberal Democrats are in politics to remove barriers for all children and not to return to the 1950s education system. We want a modern education system for the 21st century not an acceptance of mediocrity. We want a system for the future rather than turning the clock back to the past with a two-tier education system that will let down our kids.

I doubt if these plans were known outside Michael Gove's private office. This looks like an attempt to bounce us – and that is not going to happen. Changes like this have to go through proper government procedures. We were left scrabbling around in the dark.

Lib Dem president Tim Farron, the standard bearer of the party's left, has continued the rearguard action, describing Gove's plans as "madness". Here's his statement in full:

Returning to a two-tier exam system would be madness. The O-level/CSE system was divisive and dumped less academic young people into a second division from which they couldn't escape, providing a fixed limit on the expectations of those young people who were saddled with having to sit the CSE. I say this with some bitterness and personal experience having a couple of CSE's to my name.

By all means, lets look at the GCSE and consider reforms – Michael Gove is perfectly within his rights to do that – but lets kill off immediately any talk of returning to the divisive 2-tier system that Mrs Thatcher wisely ended in the late 80s.

The Lib Dems are on strong ground. As I noted earlier, one searches the Coalition Agreement in vain for a reference to Gove's reforms; the Education Secretary has no mandate. Whether or not his plans fall prey to the "curse of Clegg" has become a key test of Tory supremacy.

Nick Clegg was not consulated on Michael Gove's plans to scrap GCSEs. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.