Why the Scottish referendum is win-win for the Tories

Labour would lose 41 seats if Scotland went independent. The Tories would lose one.

No one should doubt David Cameron's commitment to the Union but there's at least one reason why Scottish independence wouldn't be an entirely negative outcome for the Tories. The break-up of the Union and the removal of Scottish MPs for Westminster would dramatically reduce the chances of Labour returning to government. It's well known that Ed Miliband has more Scottish MPs than Cameron but what's less well known is just how many more. Labour won 41 seats at the last election (no change from 2005) but the Conservatives won just one (see graph). Indeed, the Tories haven't exceeded that figure since 1997. There are now more giant pandas in Scotland than Conservative MPs.


As a result, the commitment of some Tories to the Union has waned. In 2006, Michael Portillo told Andrew Neil: "From the point of political advantage, the Conservatives have a better chance of being in government if Scotland is not part of the affair. You are continuing to assume the Union is sacrosanct. That is not an assumption I make any more." A 2009 ConservativeHome poll of 144 party candidates found that 46 per cent would not be "uncomfortable about Scotland becoming independent". To many Tories, an independent England - economically liberal, fiscally conservative, Eurosceptic, Atlanticist - is an attractive prospect.

On his live blog, the Guardian's Andrew Sparrow reports on speculation at Westminster that George Osborne, who is chair of the ministerial group on Scotland, is "not the union's greatest fan." It's not hard to see why Osborne, who is also the Tories' chief election strategist, might be tempted by the prospect of an independent Scotland but, to date, there is no evidence that he's anything other than an Unionist. However, you only need to look at the graph above to see why some in the Conservative Party are not.

George Eaton is 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.