Andrew Mitchell's future hangs in the balance

Chief Whip will be told to "come clean" when he meets West Midlands police officers today.

Three weeks after the news of Andrew Mitchell's run-in with the police first broke, the controversy shows no sign of receding. The Chief Whip will meet members of the West Midlands Police Federation in his constituency office today and will face pressure to finally come clean over what he said. Simon Payne, the chairman of Warwickshire Police Federation, tells the Times (£): "The issue is not a complicated one. All we are seeking is clarification on what was said, an apology, then we want to move on."

Should Mitchell fail to offer "clarification", however, the Police Federation will almost certainly demand his resignation. The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, has already done so. In an editorial published today, the house journal of the Tory party declares: 

If he stays, Mr Mitchell can do little good, and much damage. For the sake of his party, he should do the decent thing and stand down.

As I noted on Wednesday, an increasing number of Tory MPs are of the same opinion, believing that Mitchell lacks the authority necessary to perform his duties as Chief Whip. As David Davis astutely observed last week:

What does a Chief Whip have at his fingertips to deploy normally? Well, a mixture of charm, rewards, appeals to loyalty — all of those are diluted at the moment.

He added that it would be "very, very difficult" for Mitchell to do his job. Should he step down, the smart money is on Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude to replace him.

For now at least, Mitchell retains the support of the man who appointed him - David Cameron. The Times (£) reports that the Prime Minister is "inclined to see if the furore will die down and whether Mr Mitchell can command the respect of MPs." As the fortunes of Jeremy Hunt display, Cameron is prepared to back his ministers in the face of overwhelming media pressure to do the reverse. On other occasions, however, (Lord Ashcroft, Andy Coulson) he has held out before eventually giving way.

Cameron will need to decide whether it would be more damaging to hand Labour a ministerial scalp or to retain the services of a man who does not command the confidence of the public or, increasingly, his party.

Update: For the first time since the story broke, Labour has called for Cameron to sack Mitchell. Yvette Cooper has just issued the following statement:

This has gone on long enough. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Chief Whip have proved capable of coming clean swiftly and putting this right. And it is now clear no one even in the Conservative Party has confidence in Andrew Mitchell either. The failure by David Cameron and Andrew Mitchell to take this incident seriously enough and to sort it out straight away means Andrew Mitchell will clearly not be able to instil respect in Parliament or beyond as Chief Whip, and this will just drag on and on. David Cameron needs to put an end to this now and remove Andrew Mitchell from his position as Chief Whip.

I suspect that Labour's decision to call for Mitchell's resignation will increase his chances of survival (remember the case of Jeremy Hunt). Of course, given how damaging the story has been for the Tories, this could be precisely the party's intention.

Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell will meet West Midlands police officers today in an attempt to "clear the air". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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