Boris outflanks Cameron on school sport

Mayor calls for return of two-hours-a-week target scrapped by the government.

Boris Johnson's call for all school pupils to do two hours of sport a day, following the news that the government has scrapped the relevant target, is yet another example of him using his platform as Mayor of London to make a national intervention.

Here's what he told a press conference earlier today:

The government totally understands people's appetite for this, they can see the benefits of sport and what it does for young people.

They understand very, very clearly the social and economic advantages.

I would like to see, frankly, the kind of regime I used to enjoy - compulsory two hours' sport every day.

I've no doubt that is the sort of thing that would be wonderful for kids across this country.

It is of profound importance for the happiness and success of this country that we have more sport in schools.

David Cameron has defended the decision to abolish the target on the grounds that "if you just simply sit there in Whitehall and set a target but don't actually do anything to help schools meet it, you are not really solving the problem". He added: "By just saying 'Look, I want you to do this many hours a week' some schools think 'Right, as I've hit that minimum requirement, I've ticked the box and I can give up."

Yet, as ever, Boris has not missed an opportunity to kick Cameron while he's down. As Mayor of London he enjoys the luxury of being able to comment on national affairs with little fear of consequences, while the PM is constrained by the coalition, his own MPs and the government's deficit reduction plan. If today's intervention is a sign of things to come, the next three years could be very uncomfortable for Cameron.

David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson cheer on athletes at the Olympic Games. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.