More Tory than Boris?

Popular hatred of fat cat bankers is a problem for the London Mayor, who is known as a friend of the

Every politician is this morning conducting his or her own private autopsy on the deceased bonus of RBS's Chief Executive Stephen Hester. What killed it? What does it mean? Few will be asking this question with more urgency than London Mayor Boris Johnson.

He has historically been seen as a friend of the City -- championing the capital's vast financial services sector is a task that comes with the job. But he also wants to be re-elected this year by an electorate that tends to lean towards Labour. Not surprisingly, Boris was out over the weekend expressing his dismay at the scale of Hester's pay award.

The incumbent mayor has had a poll fright recently with his Labour challenger, Ken Livingstone, pulling neck-and-neck at the turn of the year and even inching ahead. That was an upset to the conventional wisdom (accepted even by senior Labour figures last year) that the contest could already be called for the Tories.

There are a number of explanations around for why it is that Boris seems to have lost his lead. One is that people simply hadn't focused on the contest before, making 2011 vintage polls inaccurate. Another is that Ken's New Year campaign around fare rises really struck a chord with commuters. A third is that Boris hasn't really started campaigning yet. There is truth in all of them.

A key factor, I suspect, is that incumbency is harming Johnson more than it helps him.

Last time around, Boris was the challenger, which suited his self-image as a bit of a maverick, an eccentric, a TV personality and so, crucially, not a typical Tory. Some of that image remains, but the mantle of office has necessarily imposed a degree of discipline on the mayor. He still gets away with more mannered dishevelment than is usual for someone in his position, but there is an extent to which his pre-election persona has been absorbed into a more conventional political identity. Or, to put it in cruder terms, he is becoming more Tory than Boris.

In that context, his association with the City, Big Finance and the incumbent government could do him immense harm if -- as the RBS bonus episode suggests -- there is an appetite for some populist left noises in the campaign. Ken Livingstone, I imagine, is capable of doing left populism if required.

Crucially, there is also interesting poll evidence to suggest that the coalition of voters who stubbornly hate the Tories is powerful enough to trump those that are wary of Labour and, at a national level, unconvinced by Ed Miliband as a potential prime minister.

That anti-Tory bloc of voters will be big in London and, of course, they won't be electing a PM. Under the London mayoral voting system, they also have a second preference to put on the ballot paper. So what it could come down to is the question of who Londoners hate less -- Ken or Boris. And if that becomes a Labour/Tory choice as opposed to a personal popularity contest, Livingstone really could snatch it.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of 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.