Four in ten think worse of Cameron after phone-hacking

However, polls show a mixed picture, as Tories suffer only a small negative effect.

Two polls today show contradictory results for the two main parties in the aftermath of the phone-hacking crisis.

An ICM/Guardian poll shows Labour down since before the scandal broke, at 36 points to the Conservatives' 37. This is the first time the Tories have had the lead in an ICM poll in months, although Labour's three-point drop is due to a rise in Lib Dem support, not Tory. By contrast, a Populus poll for the Times (£) shows the Conservatives sharply down, with 34 points to Labour's 39. This is down five points on last month, and the lowest in a Populus poll since the coalition was formed. Despite this drop, however, Labour did not appear to have benefitted, and at 39 were a point down on last month.

The Populus poll found that four out of ten members of the public (39 per cent) said they thought worse of David Cameron as a result of the last fortnight's revelations, while 55 per cent said their view of him was unchanged.

Just 14 per cent said their view of Ed Miliband had improved as a result of the phone-hacking scandal, while 20 per cent said it had gone down, and 61 per cent were unchanged. Westminster and media circles have lauded Miliband's handling of the crisis and say that it has reinvigorated his leadership of the party. This result may indicate that this has not filtered through to the public as much as Labour had hoped.

The ICM poll is similarly disheartening for Miliband. The group phrased its question on the leaders differently; UK Polling Report explains that questions of the type asked by Populus "tend to give misleading results -- people who never liked a politician to start with say it's made their view worse and vice-versa."

Instead, ICM asked people for approval ratings before and after the event, and found that Cameron remains more popular than either his government or other leading politicians, although more people think he is doing a bad job than a good one. 43 per cent of voters say he is doing a good job, while 48 per cent say bad job, both up one point from last month. This gives him a net negative rating of -5.

By contrast, just 31 per cent say Miliband is doing a good job -- although this is up three points on last month -- while 47 per cent say he is doing a bad job, down two. This means his net rating is -16, up from -21 last month. It's a significant improvement, but there is a long way to go yet. The positive reaction to Miliband's handling of the crisis is stronger among Labour supporterss, 58 per cent now think he is doing a good job, compared with 45 per cent last month.

While the picture from these polls is mixed, we can draw the following conclusions: the Tories have, so far at least, suffered only a small negative effect in the polls because of the crisis. While a majority of the public thinks that Cameron has handled the crisis badly, his broader approval ratings are holding up and -- crucially -- are still substantially ahead of both Miliband and Nick Clegg. Miliband has certainly seen a boost in how the public perceive him, but he still has a long way to go to catch up with Cameron, and this bounce has not been reflected in greater support for Labour. It remains to be seen whether Miliband can capitalise on these modest gains when the news agenda moves on.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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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.