Ann Widdecombe rules out Vatican appointment

The former government minister turns down the post, citing a detached retina, and heads for Strictly

Ann Widdecombe has turned down the post of UK ambassador to the Vatican because of a detached retina, she told the Times this weekend.

As I blogged a little over a week ago, doubt had been cast on her chances of succeeding Francis Campbell in the post after she signed up to appear in the autumn series of the BBC's reality show Strictly Come Dancing.

Now, she has told the Times that she was unable to take the post because of an operation to repair a detached retina. However, it seems clear that she was made a definite offer, and that she regrets being obliged to turn it down. She said:

The good reason is that I have just had an operation for a detached retina. I am very sorry about Rome. I would have gone otherwise.

However, in the same interview, the Times reports that she dismissed the Strictly claims as "rumour and speculation", which seems to run counter to the Daily Mail, which reported several weeks ago that she had been confirmed to appear on the show.

Another likely candidate for the Vatican post, Chris Patten, has not yet been offered the job, but Times sources suggest he is unlikely to accept because of his duties as chancellor of Oxford University.

Other reputed candidates are Paul Murphy, the former Northern Ireland secretary, and Ruth Kelly, rumoured to be a member of Opus Dei. Given Widdecombe's popularity on both sides, it will take something special to equal the momentum she had. But the BBC's William Crawley believes he's found it -- how about Tony Blair?

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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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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