The mystery of Jo Swinson's appointment as equalities minister

Why was the Lib Dem appointed a week after everyone else?

You may have missed it amid the cacophony of "bigotgate", but eight days after the reshuffle started it’s still going on, and Britain has woken up this morning with a new equalities minister – Jo Swinson.

There were many things in last week's reshuffle that upset the Lib Dems. The appointment of Owen Paterson as Environment Secretary and Chris Grayling as Justice Secretary went down universally badly, the return of David Laws was greeted with an equal amount of cheers and jeers (depending on which wing of the party you spoke to to), and there was a certain amount of disquiet about how we appeared to lose all influence on international policy with the removal of Lib Dem ministers from both the Foreign Office and the MoD.

But the one thing that rankled above all else was the removal of the equalities portfolio from the hands of a much respected Lib Dem minister, Lynne Featherstone, and its transfer to a Tory. Unmitigated fury and universal condemnation has been the theme of the week. And now it appears something has been done, coalition conversations have been had and Swinson has been named as an equalities minister – "our" equalities minister, to quote Clegg.

This move will delight just about every Lib Dem. Swinson is a rising star, much admired for her work on campaigns like Body Confidence, and she will do a fantastic job. But once the euphoria subsides, other questions arise. For example, the matter of why the previous equalities minister, Lynn Featherstone, had this responsibility removed. Everyone thought she did a first class job – so where did she go wrong? There are now no fewer than three equalities ministers – what will they all do? And why has Swinson been appointed a week after everyone else – it couldn’t be evidence of coalition government not quite working? Bit of a row, perhaps?

I feel a bit like the kid for whom Father Christmas came a week late. Thank you for the presents – I’m thrilled. But where have you been for the last week - stuck up the chimney? And why are you giving me my old toys back?

New equalities minister Jo Swinson with Nick Clegg earlier this year. 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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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.