Lib Dem MPs must behave before the grassroots will

If the party's MPs want the leadership debate to go away, then they should stop talking about it.

Well, I’m in trouble. Me and the other 40,000 activists in the Lib Dems. As has been well documented, there has been more than a touch of debate about the party leadership ahead of conference (we’re at 10% in the polls - of course there has!) and the word on the street is that , generally speaking, this isn’t going down well with the Westminster crowd. Apparently the received wisdom is that if we don’t show a united front in Brighton, there’s a chance the world may spot that the membership isn’t entirely comfortable with the way things have been going to date. You reckon?

Well apart from the fact that it just wouldn’t be Lib Dem conference if there wasn’t a barney about something or other (in the last three conferences it’s been around the NHS, the NHS and the NHS), there’s a touch of physician heal thyself about all this.

It all started with Vince saying "I don't give any time to these personal criticisms of Nick Clegg which are being made at the moment", which is, by all accounts, code for declaring war on the leadership. Plenty of others in Westminster have been just as guilty. Adrian Sanders, for example, declared that Clegg must stop "bumbling along worrying about the future".

But it’s not all one-way traffic is it? I notice the term "the continuity SDP" has been slipped causally into the press to describe anyone who thinks the party may have just edged slightly to the wrong side of the centre ground. Then we had Ming declaring of the Cable-Miliband texts: "The truth is that the success of this coalition depends upon everyone who participates in it being a full subscriber, and we were using the expression pick and mix a little while ago. I don’t think it helps a partnership to suggest that you may already be looking for another partner."

Finally, Malcolm Bruce weighed in this weekend, declaring (in a fairly obviously targeted message) that we shouldn’t be laying the ground work for a coalition with Labour. Well, we should actually. And we should be laying the groundwork for another coalition with the Tories. And if the arithmetic works out in 2015, we need to be prepared. We were last time. So were the Tories. Labour, put simply, wasn’t, and, in any case, the electoral arithmetic didn’t stack up. Next time, (if there is a next time) we should take longer about the process– and all the major parties should be ready to negotiate whatever deal the will of the electorate throws up. (Plenty of readers have rushed to the comments section to shout "you see, you’ll deal with anyone who keeps you in power". No we won’t. We’ll talk to anyone the British people tell us too. Doesn’t mean we’ll do a deal).

But more to the point, the folk in Westminster can’t tell the grassroots to show a united front and then bicker amongst themselves through the pages of the press. If they really want the leadership debate to go away, then they should stop talking about it – no matter who you think is parking tanks on whoever’s lawn. But as long as they’re slipping quotes to the press, I don’t see why the rest of us shouldn’t stick our oar in.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference.

He's behind you, Nick. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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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