Alan Johnson slams the coalition cuts

And talks about the challenges of his "big, big job"

In an interview with the Observer published today, Alan Johnson has voiced criticisms of the coalition's economic policies from his new role as shadow chancellor. He said the proposed 25 per cent spending cuts could "fundamentally alter our community" and were going to "cause huge harm to our public services".

The appointment of Johnson to the job of shadow chancellor has led to some questioning his expertise, especially compared to the other obvious choices for the position, Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper. In the interview, Johnson tackles the doubters head on:

"You don't need to be a professor of economics to be a Treasury minister... I will do this job the way I have done other jobs. I would not pretend to be the greatest gift to the cabinet but I have done five cabinet jobs and I have done them OK... It is about getting up to speed very quickly and it is about listening to people. Particularly in this brief it is more about listening to people than reading up. I am not going to do an economics degree in the next few months."

It is a characteristically self-deprecating assessment of his career. Some might think, however, that reading up is exactly what he should be doing, but as my colleague Mehdi Hasan pointed out yesterday, Johnson's personability, humour and background (especially in contrast to his privileged opponent on the Conservative front bench) will give him a particular strength and appeal. Johnson comes across in person and in politics as normal, human and humble - qualities you might argue are sometimes lacking in the Chancellor himself. Whether he should go on referring to his lack of learning in economics is, however, questionable. He might not be planning to do an economics degree, but he has very little time before the spending review to steel himself for the fight, and against the inevitable accusations of economic ignorance.

Sophie Elmhirst is features 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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