CommentPlus: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Tories' chance to lose their nasty image (Financial Times)

David Cameron should sack Chris Grayling for defending the right of B&B owners to turn away gay couples, argues Chris Cook. This is a golden opportunity for the Tory leader to show the depth of his commitment to changing his party.

2. Chris Grayling reveals the real Tories (Guardian)

Elsewhere, Peter Tatchell says that Cameron's failure to condemn Grayling's remarks swiftly calls into doubt the sincerity and seriousness of his commitment to gay equality.

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3. Best forgotten (Times)

With the World Cup due to open in Johannesburg in June, the murder of Eugene Terre'Blanche could not have come at a worse time for South Africa, says a leader in the Times. His death must not be allowed to threaten the racial harmony that this white supremacist always opposed.

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4. I have never known the Tories to be so committed to the poor (Independent)

Unlike Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron has an instinctive sympathy for the poor, writes Bruce Anderson. After the left's failure to stem inequality, the Tories' social justice agenda deserves a chance.

5. Health-care reform is creating more anxiety than euphoria (Guardian)

The passage of health-care reform was a definite negative for Barack Obama's poll ratings, says Michael Tomasky. The president must confront a deep anxiety among independent voters that the Democrats are planning more huge domestic legislation.

6. Politicians should get among the people (Daily Telegraph)

The party leaders should follow John Major's example and get on the soapbox, writes Philip Johnston. Limited contact between the electorate and those who seek to lead it is one of the main reasons for declining turnout.

7. Italy still unable to see beyond Berlusconi (Financial Times)

The Italian electorate appears convinced that there is no alternative to Silvio Berlusconi, says Geoff Andrews. But Berlusconi's reforms are designed to do little more than consolidate his power and neuter his opponents.

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8. God is attracting more debate than ever (Guardian)

The New Atheists intended to dent the growth of religion across the world, writes Madeleine Bunting. Instead, they only fed our interest in it.

9. George Osborne's got it right -- we need wealth creation (Daily Telegraph)

The Tories' planned National Insurance cut proves that they support and understand the wealth creators of society, argues Boris Johnson.

10. Marginalised maybe, but we aren't persecuted (Times)

Christians in Britain need to learn to speak of their faith without implying that those of no faith are morally defective, says Richard Harries.

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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.