Sketch: Nick Clegg's speech

Members should “prepare for vitriol and abuse".

When Nick Clegg revealed his message to his members was to go back to their constituencies and “prepare for vitriol and abuse" observers wondered why wait that long.

And thus the sound of blades being sharpened on handy rocks from Brighton’s sand-less beach provided a useful indicator of the welcome being prepared for the Lib Dem leader as he prepared to tell his party that they would not be reaching the sunlit uplands any time soon.

Obviously aware of the threat to their leader the lights in the conference centre were switched off before the speech to allow loyal and ,one assumes, fully frisked members to gather on stage to provide a safe, if staring, background to his end of the conference speech.

With party support now in a place where the doldrums would be a plus and half the MPs in the hall heading for the dole the audience brought a whole new meaning to enthusiasm.

Thankfully for Nick his path had been smoothed yesterday by the decision of Danny Alexander’s mum to allow her youngest a day trip to Brighton to make his own speech.

Still masquerading as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny had plundered the “Greatest Scottish jokes of all time” annual for 1908 to remind party members why they were as deep in the odure as the opinion polls suggest.

Whether this was a deliberate attempt to remind delegates just how worse the situation could be is unknown but Danny was certainly given a prominent position as his leader addressed the faithful.

Having spent much of the parliamentary season in mournful contemplation of the turn-ups in his trousers it was a slightly surreal scene as he strode onto the platform to be announced yet again as the Deputy Prime Minister.

As half the members in the hall joined the party confident in the belief that they would never be in power the reality is clearly a shock but Nick made it clear that having got a sniff of it—and what goes with it—for him at least not to mention Danny’s mam, there would be no going back.

And he turned the history of the Lib Dens on its head by declaring if people wanted protest not power they should vote Labour which, sadly for him , most are apparently already doing.

The past is gone and is not coming back he told the delegates as he announced the last leader but three, Paddy Ashdown, would be getting them ready for the next general election.

And talking of which there was no mention of the other one with Prime Minister in his title busy getting ready for tonight’s appearance on Letterman in New York.

One can only hope that if the” Pleb” story comes up Letterman will seek to confirm with the PM whether his Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell prefers to be called “Thrasher” after his time at Rugby school or by his other favourite title BSD , ‘Big Swinging Dick.”

But that is for conferences to come but meanwhile back in Brighton where

days past a chauffeur-driven was only a dream a party leader’s speech would go on and on as pledges never to be fulfilled were made.

But Nick needed just over the half hour in the new world to tell them they would need binoculars to see the good times coming.

“Imagine yourself standing on the doorstep in 2015”, he asked them.

They did and he left to slightly hysterical applause.

Nick Clegg and wife. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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.