Ken takes the lead over Boris

New poll puts Livingstone ahead of Johnson in London mayoral race by 45 per cent to 43.

Don't bet against Red Ken returning to City Hall in 2012. The latest YouGov poll on the London mayoral race puts the Labour candidate ahead of Boris on first preferences by 45 per cent to 43. By contrast, an earlier poll published in October showed Boris ahead by 46 per cent to 44.

The significant support for Livingstone suggests that his age (he will turn 67 in June 2012) and his political baggage aren't necessarily barriers to his re-election. There are still other candidates to come, not least from the Greens and the Lib Dems, who could cut into Ken's vote, but this poll will reassure Labour that it made the right choice.

As on previous occasions, the result is almost certain to be determined by second-preference votes. Asked who they would rather have as mayor – a question that aims to reflect second preferences – voters still favour Boris by 45 per cent to 42, although his lead has narrowed from 5 points in October.

In the coming months we can expect Boris to do even more to try to differentiate himself from Cameron and Osborne. As I noted last week, growing opposition to the speed and scale of the coalition's cuts means Labour's poll lead has widened from 3-5 points to 7-9 points. Boris's challenge is to achieve what Ken could not and prove that national unpopularity is no barrier to local success.

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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