A Tale of Two Elections

The Republican primaries make good spectator sport and are conveniently conducted in English. The ra

The British media are predictably mesmerised by the US Republican primary campaign and with good reason. It is a fiercely competitive race between colourful candidates. Newt Gingrich's victory in South Carolina puts pressure on Mitt Romney, the front-runner, to deliver a "knockout punch" in Florida.

As political spectator sport goes, this is end-to-end stuff. And, of course, it matters. The winning candidate will run against Barack Obama and so potentially emerge as President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of what remains - until China catches up some time in the next decade or three - the most formidable power in the world. It is worth keeping an eye on who is in the frame for that job.

Still, the US vote that really counts isn't until November. Meanwhile, in our political backyard, campaigning is under way in another presidential poll - in France. The first round of voting is on 22 April. Francois Hollande wants to unseat Nicolas Sarkozy and take back the presidency for the Socialist party first time since 1996. On the fringe, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front, is hoping to repeat the success of her father, Jean-Marie, who stunned the European political establishment by elbowing his way into the second round presidential run-off against Sarkozy in 2002.

France's constitution gives the president extraordinary powers - far more than are wielded by the US head of state, whose hands are often tied by Congress. The country is absolutely central to the diplomacy that is currently going on around attempts to resolve the European single currency debt crisis and the negotiations over wider reforms to the European Union. It shouldn't have to be said that the outcome of a presidential election across the channel matters every bit as much to Britain - and arguably much more - than the outcome of a contest over the Atlantic.

You wouldn't have guessed it from the proportion of attention paid by our media. It is, of course, easier to follow US politics - the Americans conveniently do battle in our native language. But that point of access creates a false sense of cultural and political proximity. Britain's strategic alliance with Washington stays remarkably stable regardless of who is in the White House. It is a partnership built on defence and security collaboration.

By contrast, our economic fortunes could be quite substantially affected by the outcome of European negotiations, which, in turn, are substantially affected by diplomatic relations with the French head of state. The prospect of that job going to the Socialist candidate for the first time in 16 years (who, by the way, is campaigning on a populist anti-Big Finance ticket) merits perhaps more attention than it has thus far earned.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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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